The Boys at the 100 Club, 7 January 2023

Matt Dangerfield and The Boys at the 100 Club

I first encountered punk rock (unless you count Iggy and the Stooges or Dr Feelgood) at a gig in 1976/77 at the University of Warwick. I don’t recall the headline act – presumably the usual tired prog-rock fare the Students’ Union served up – but I certainly remember the support act. It was Ultravox! in its early incarnation, when the band still sported an exclamation mark, and when John Foxx (not Midge Ure) did the singing. They were sharp, aggressive, fresh and thrilling, everything the headline act was not.

The effect on the audience was startling. Three quarters of the crowd responded with boos or stony silence. The rest of us were on our feet, cheering and dancing. There couldn’t have been a clearer demonstration of the schism about to hit pop and rock music.

I first encountered The Boys one evening in 1977. I was probably working on an essay due the following morning, when I heard them, I guess, on John Peel’s show, which went out between 10 and 12 each weekday night – where else could it have been? No-one else was flying the flag for punk on national radio. It was 1 minute and 53 seconds which burned into my consciousness and has not departed since. Sick on You was vulgar, noisy and completely captivating.

I ain’t sadistic, masochistic
You and me are through
I`m sick to death of everything you do
And if I’m gonna have a puke you bet yer life I’ll puke on you
I’m gonna be, gonna be sick on you
I’m gonna be, gonna be sick on you
I’m gonna be, gonna be sick on you
All down your face, your dress, your legs and your shoes…
Sick on you

Not exactly Baudelaire is it? Or perhaps it is, I wouldn’t know. Nor did I know at the time that it was a faster and shorter revamp of a 1973 recording by the Hollywood Brats, the Stones-styled glam-rock band in which Boys keyboard player Casino Steel had previously played. In keeping with rock songs of the time the Hollywood Brats version ran for over five minutes.

I met Jana in 1995, when she was recruited to the stockbroking firm I worked for. Bright, efficient, sparky and fun, it was easy to see the spirit of adventure which had led her to leave East Berlin for London in the years after the Wall came down. I was starstruck when she told me that her boyfriend (now her husband) was none other than Matt Dangerfield, who had sung, played guitar and written songs for The Boys. Jana was probably surprised to discover that her rather awkward and sedate colleague remembered the band with such affection, and, of all their records, was especially fixated on Sick on You.

She told a wonderful tale about growing up in East Berlin, concerning the David Bowie song The Bewlay Brothers from Hunky Dory. She and her friends, being Bowie fans, wanted to play his music to the class. The teachers were wary of exposing their pupils to western culture, and like most behind the Iron Curtain were especially suspicious of western pop music. But she was able to get The Bewlay Brothers under the wire because the lines

Lay me place and bake me pie
I'm starving for me gravy

enabled her teachers to use the song as evidence that people in the capitalist West didn’t have enough to eat.

My connections to celebrity are few and far between, so please excuse me making the most of this tenuous connection to punk royalty. I met Matt Dangerfield at a work event a few months later. I don’t imagine that’s his true surname – other band members had adopted fanciful sounding names like Jack Black(!), Kid Reid, Casino Steel and Honest John Plain. I found Matt thoughtful, articulate and charismatic, like many other punk figureheads. Less typically he was also friendly and approachable.

He had been one of the godfathers of punk. In the mid 1970s he had converted his rented basement flat in Maida Vale into a home recording studio. 47A Warrington Crescent became pivotal in the development of the UK punk scene. Mick Jones, Brian James, Rat Scabies, Sid Vicious and Billy Idol were regular visitors. Amongst others, the Sex Pistols, The Damned, London SS, The Clash, Chelsea, Generation X and of course, The Boys, made their first recordings there.

In September 1975 Dangerfield left Mick Jones and Tony James’s fledgling punk band London SS to form The Boys with ex-Hollywood Brats songwriter and keyboard player Casino Steel. Dangerfield’s art college friend, guitarist Honest John Plain, soon joined. The following year they held auditions for the bass and drum roles with Kid Reid and Jack Black completing the line-up.

The Boys made their debut at London’s Hope and Anchor Pub in September 1976. Mick Jones, Billy Idol, Joe Strummer and Tony James were all present in the packed venue. They became the first punk band to sign an album deal when they were signed by NEMS in January 1977.

Despite an outstanding live reputation, the Boys never breached the UK singles charts, although The Boys was a Top 50 album, just. In a revealing 2019 interview with Brighton and Hove News, Matt offers an explanation for their lack of chart success:

“It was great (being the only UK band at the time with an LP record deal), but in a way we signed too early. We signed to NEMS because they were a very good live agency…The problem was that (they) weren’t a very good record company. After we’d signed for them we were approached by lots of major record labels, and we’d have to tell them that we were already signed.”

In the same interview, Matt explains the band’s breakup in 1982:

“I think that by that time we’d realised that things had moved on in the music business. The days of the Specials, Madness, were upon us, and punk was no longer the leading light that it had been. Punk never died out, it went out of fashion and went underground to an extent. At the same time it was being picked up on all around the world. Internationally, the punk scene now is bigger than it was in the 1970s.”

The band reformed in 1999 to play gigs in Japan. Despite their modest record sales, they have a decent worldwide following and an impressive legacy, and have established themselves as global ambassadors for punk. Die Toten Hosen, a German punk band whose name translates literally as “The Dead Trousers” (but actually means more like “The Deadbeats”) transformed The Boys’ reputation in Germany by championing the band and regularly covering their songs.

In 2015 The Boys embarked on an ambitious trip to China. They arrived in Shanghai for a nine-date national tour to promote their new album Punk Rock Menopause only to find that the tour had been cancelled by the Chinese Ministry of Culture due to “crowd control and security issues” – a few weeks earlier 36 people had died in a stampede at a New Year celebration in Shanghai. The Ministry had contacted each venue on the tour and told them they would be closed if they went ahead with the gigs.

Nevertheless Chinese TV station LETV invited the band to come to the TV studios and record two songs live. The Boys accepted but replied that they would like to play a full 70-minute Boys set to a small live audience. Although The Boys had been banned from playing any live gigs in China by the Ministry of Culture, LETV had the cojones to agree to this. During the TV special, one of Matt’s interview responses seems quite bold, and could easily have been seen as subversive by the Chinese authorities:

” It’s music. It’s just kids having fun. It’s not dangerous, you know, it never was dangerous. There’s no way that Johnny Rotten was going to overthrow the British government. Or change anything really. It was just kids expressing themselves and being rebellious. That’s what kids should do. And there’s not enough of that in this…”

Here he pauses and it seems for one delicious moment that he might say “this country” i.e. China. If so, he thought better of it.

“…modern world…kids rebelling, rebelling against their parents…what older people say how they should behave…every generation is a new generation, they have different things to rebel against.”

At any rate, even the mild suggestion that kids should rebel against their parents was risky enough in view of the hypersensitive Chinese government.

The band set off on a cultural tour of China and managed to play three secret underground gigs promoted entirely by word of mouth, carefully avoiding official Chinese chat rooms and social networks like Weibo. They also recorded a live album, which was released in July 2015. The 55-minute TV special was subsequently aired after the band had safely left the country. A perfect punk hit-and-run on a totalitarian state. I wonder if they’ll ever go back there.

So, during Saturday lunchtime I realised that The Boys were playing a gig at the 100 Club in central London that evening. The 100 Club – so called because its address is 100 Oxford Street – is a historic venue established in 1942 as the Feldman Jazz Club, which over the years has hosted performances by Louis Armstrong, B.B. King, Muddy Waters, The Who, The Kinks, The Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney, and in the heyday of punk, The Sex Pistols, The Clash and Siouxsie & The Banshees.

The Boys’ appearance was part of a ten day punk festival called Resolution ‘23 which offered the chance to see some lesser known but fondly remembered bands, also including The Members, The UK Subs and 999. I’d never seen The Boys, so I seized the opportunity.

I hadn’t been to the 100 Club since I saw Q-Tips and the V.I.P.s there in 1980. It’s a buzzing basement venue with the stage in the middle of a long space, with a bar at each end. It wasn’t full, but there was a good crowd – as you would expect, mostly of a certain age (plenty of bald heads in evidence) but there were also plenty of people young enough to know better.

As I listened to (or at least heard) the support bands, (Continental Lovers and The Vulz) I was reminded that the artists who transcended the first wave of punk were those who had actual talent for composition or melody besides merely energy and attitude – Elvis Costello, The Police/Sting and The Jam/Paul Weller spring to mind. The Vulz played an energetic but for me, uninspiring set. When they kicked into what sounded like the intro to 20th Century Boy and then went into their own song, I was disappointed…a bit of T Rex would have been very welcome.

The Boys came on stage, and the difference in class was immediately apparent. Real songs, pacing, precision and bite. Of course by now they’re Men rather than Boys, and a couple of strategic caps were in evidence, but the original, older band members looked in good nick, hopefully having avoided the worst punk rock excesses in their youth. They were enthusiastically received, although mercifully I didn’t see any gobbing or any ill-advised pogoing.

Their set included all their best known songs: Weekend, Living in the City, their 1977 debut single I Don’t Care followed by the anthemic Brickfield Nights, First Time, and of course Sick on You. I’ve noticed with other punk bands I’ve seen in recent years that decades of gigging since the seventies have made them better, tighter musicians. Naturally today’s gigs lack the edge of danger present in 1976/77, but in compensation the quality of playing has increased hugely, And we lapped it up, of course we did. You don’t get to hear authentic punk rock like that too often these days. You can also find a high quality video of their gig at the same venue, recorded in 2017.

Jana couldn’t be there, as she had just started a new job, and was looking after their young family at home in Berlin. She told me to say Hi to Matt. I didn’t, of course. Gods and mortals should never mix at these occasions – it would spoil the magic.

Draft manuscript of “Betty’s Adventure” discovered

by George Thompson, 3rd May 2051

It is twenty-five years since the poignant Betty’s Adventure by Alice Edwards was published by Usborne. It was an instant worldwide hit, taking its place in the canon of children’s classics alongside The Cat in the Hat, The Tiger Who Came to Tea and Matilda. Last month a unique early draft was discovered, which appears to settle a long-standing controversy.

At the time Betty’s Adventure was published, Alice Edwards had just broken through to huge global success with her indie/folk/pop band The People Versus. The publication of her children’s book was sceptically received by some, who suspected that she had hired a ghost writer to cash in on her success. Edwards never addressed these claims, saying she didn’t care whether or not people believed she had written it.

Her father Rik fiercely defended her as the true author, claiming she had written it for him as a Christmas present, about their family pet. But as his intervention came at a time of increasing mental instability, few people paid attention. Some years later he died in a freak meat cleaver accident while visiting Kamchatka with his wife.

The precious manuscript was discovered in his effects when the family home was cleared last month, among a huge pile of theatre tickets and old race results. This provenance seems to settle the Edwards authorship question decisively. But it is unlikely that Alice cares one way or the other. At the height of her fame she quit the music business abruptly, enigmatically answering all press questions with “Oingo Boingo”, and retired to her large Oxfordshire estate with twenty dogs, where she still lives as a semi-recluse.

The manuscript is very similar to the final published work. It will be auctioned by Christie’s on 18th May, with all the proceeds, at Alice’s stipulation, going to dog charities. It is estimated to fetch £1.5m – £2m. The full manuscript is shown below, by permission of Christie’s.

© Alice Edwards 2022

Some clerihews

E.C.Bentley
At 16, gently
Embraced the very new
And invented the clerihew
Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres
‘ad deux sumbs et huit fingres
Not to mention dix teuse
When painting “La Grande Baigneuse”
Tony Blair
To much despair
Ignored Chirac
And invaded Iraq
Elizabeth Truss
With maximum fuss
Was our Minister, Prime
For the shortest of time
Johnson (Boris)
Quoted Horace
“Pro patria mori”
Just like a Tory
Elvis Presley
Would not eat mu-esli
But he was a nutter
For peanut butter
Chas and Dave
Their talent gave
With careful nurture
To bring us “Gertcha”
Nicholas Breakspear
Never met Shakespeare
But might well have done
Five centuries on
Gordon Brown
Oft wore a frown
Which gave him a sinister
Aspect as Prime Minister
J M W Turner
Had a large Bunsen burner
(In fact quite a number)
To make his burnt umber

…and one which isn’t a clerihew at all:

Here in the UK
We no longer say
Thou, thee or thine, we say you.
But the people of France
Do a delicate dance
To decide if it’s vous or it’s tu

Betty’s last wiggle

Warning: concerns the death of a dog.

It is the nature of life – and death – that we don’t always know when we are doing something for the last time: sitting your daughter on your lap, taking the kids to the swings, swimming in the sea, having lunch with your father. Or throwing a toy for your dog…

One cold day in December, we tried taking Betty for a walk. Her progress, never rapid, was glacial. We thought perhaps she just didn’t like walking in the snow – although she had managed her normal pace in snow the day before. It turned out to be the sign of a bigger problem.

Nevertheless, a week later Betty seemed her normal self. She gobbled down her food, went for her usual slow walk, and energetically chased her favourite toy, Piggy, through the house as we flung it for her. But then she was hesitant about jumping up to her favourite spot on the sofa, and when Debbie went to lift her up, she let out a yelp of pain.

Something was clearly wrong, so Debbie took her to the vet the next morning, and left her there for tests. A few hours later the vet phoned with the news: Betty had large internal growth affecting her spleen, and her liver, very likely cancerous: she was also suffering from anaemia, probably caused by internal bleeding. Any surgery would be extremely difficult, with a modest chance of success, and would be unlikely to prolong her life for long. It was clear that Betty was in a very bad way, and we felt that we had no choice but to have her put down.

So that evening we drove to the vet’s practice to say our goodbyes. I expected to feel sad, but I had no idea how hard this was going to hit me. We waited for her in the small examination room, and when she came out, she seemed in surprisingly good spirits: she wagged her tail and – no doubt buoyed by painkillers – gave us quite a lively welcome. But she was anxious when she was placed on the table: that was where bad things happened. So we brought her down to the floor, and sat with her, and fed her a few treats.

Her relative normality and good spirits were heartbreaking. She looked at us with love and trust in her eyes, and gave me some kisses, which felt like an accusation in view of the decision we had taken. Nothing bad will happen to me, she seemed to be saying, now that Mum and Dad are here. She even managed her trademark wiggle, scratching her back on the floor – something she would only do when she was relaxed and happy.

Soon the vet came in with her paraphernalia, and gently explained what would happen. Betty still had a cannula attached to her leg, which would make the injection easier. Feisty to the last, Betty squirmed as the vet approached to attach the syringe, causing the vet to say that Betty seemed quite suspicious. Well she’s not entirely wrong, we thought. Finally the pink liquid went in, and Debbie felt Betty go limp on her lap.

I don’t cry easily, but this did it. Every pet owner who has been faced with a similar decision will recognise the extra pain and guilt caused by their unwanted agency in the event.

But why did I find this so much more upsetting than saying goodbye to Cracker, objectively a better behaved, more likeable dog? Probably because we had known for many months that Cracker was not well, so we were better prepared, whereas Betty’s diagnosis, and its severity, came very suddenly. Perhaps Betty’s arrival as a rescue was also a factor. We don’t know what hardship she might have gone through before we met her, but I felt – although I might have imagined it – that her affection was especially heartfelt as she slowly learned to trust us in her new home, after we brought her here from Dogs Trust three years ago.

There is also guilt at the occasional resentment I had felt at the chores and restraints she brought into our lives. Most of these would apply to any dog we owned: early morning and late night trips into the garden in all weathers, walks on cold or wet days, making arrangements to park her when we took a trip into London or a holiday abroad, having to take turns while exploring a church or museum, being limited to dog-friendly pubs or tea shops, not lunching in restaurants, eating our meals in the car when we made a motorway service station stop in bad weather…

Some of the restraints, however, were specific to Betty. She was often aggressive with other dogs, so we couldn’t let her off the lead when walking unless we were pretty sure there were none around. She also walked very slowly, especially when we chose to walk from our back door – which made a mockery of one reason for getting a dog, getting exercise for ourselves. This might have been due to her age, if she was in fact old, but she could manage a respectable speed if we were exploring new territory, or if she was charging around after her Piggy.

But we knew much of this when we adopted her, so I had no right to resent the commitments which dog ownership entails, and now I feel a pang of emptiness when she no longer pesters me for her dinner, or when I go straight to make the coffee in the morning without first taking her out, or when I no longer leave the bedroom door ajar so she can nuzzle her way in to say good morning to her mum. How I would love to do those little chores again for her.

I’m embarrassed to be making so much of this. She was, after all, “just” a dog. Much worse things happen in every life. But animal lovers know that losing a pet is not trivial. She died just four days before Christmas, and for a week or so the practicalities of hosting the family and the rituals of the season provided welcome distractions.

But when the house went quiet, there were poignant reminders everywhere: a Betty-shaped hole in our lives. The Christmas presents she never received, like a squeaky burger she would have loved. Her favourite spot on the sofa, now empty, where I instinctively look as I go up to bed. Surplus gravy from our dinner, now poured down the sink. Crumbs dropped from the table, no longer magically cleared up. No little head watching from the window as we head out in the car for a couple of hours, or resting on my thigh as we sit together on the sofa.

It might have helped had we known Betty’s age. It was estimated as five years by Dogs Trust when we picked her up, although on our introductory visit the vet thought she was probably older: indeed, Betty often seemed to have the demeanour of a confused old lady. At the time of her diagnosis I gained some comfort when the vet said it would be very unusual to find such an aggressive growth in an eight year old dog. If I could somehow hear that she was sixteen, not eight when she died, I would feel much better, to know that she had lived to a ripe old age, and that we had provided her with a happy retirement home for her final three years.

As she wiggled on her back for the last time, on the surgery floor, she could not know that she would not wiggle again. Betty, we’re sorry for what we had to do. We miss you.

R.I.P. Betty, 20??-2022

Expectations

My grandmother could be brutal. In my first month at grammar school, I came home and proudly announced that I was second in the maths test. “Never mind” was her response. Of course she and my parents just wanted the best for me – but seven years later, when the post arrived I was feeling the pressure.

It was 10:30am on 21st December 1974 when the letter I had been waiting for from Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge arrived, as I was enjoying the Marx Brothers in Go West on BBC1. My mother brought it in, and I tore it open –

***************

Pause there. Let me put this into perspective. My father and his brother, headmaster’s sons from a small town in North Wales, both went to Cambridge. On my father’s first day at Pembroke College, the porter greeted him with “Morning Mr Edwards! You look very like your brother.”

My mother’s brother – illegitimate product of an adulterous affair, raised in poverty, the son of a ship’s carpenter – studied English at Cambridge, went on to set up and head the English department at the University of York, and later became Director of the Shakespeare Institute in Stratford-upon-Avon – a world-renowned authority on the Bard. That might explain my grandmother’s high expectations.

My brother was studying at Cambridge, having obtained a Scholarship two years earlier. My cousin had been offered a Scholarship to a Cambridge college two days earlier.

***************

– and I pulled out the letter. Before I could focus on it, the word “regret” had leapt off the page and hit me in the eye. I looked at Mum and shook my head. I sat down gloomily and tried to console myself with the Marx Brothers, but their antics had turned cold and juvenile. I got up and switched off the television.

I don’t mean to suggest that I had disappointed my parents, but seven years earlier, when the bedroom I shared with my brother had been refurbished by my grandfather, we had been given wooden stools upholstered in light blue for Cambridge and dark blue for Oxford.

Exam failure can be put down to lack of intelligence or to lack of effort. I chose to blame the latter, because it seemed fixable. But did I take the lesson to heart? Not especially. My academic career continued on its gentle downward drift, from frequently topping the class in first year at grammar school to an unimpressive 2:2 in my degree. Luckily the degree was at Warwick, whose reputation has grown over the years. “Warwick! That’s good isn’t it?” people say. “It is now” I reply.

Nor, a couple of years later, did I make the required effort to succeed in my accountancy exams. I put this mental laziness down to my fast start in education. I was bright: my mother had taught me to read before I started infant school, and most subjects came easily to me. I understood things without effort: I once scored 20/20 in a school comprehension test – although I rather spoiled the effect by asking my mother “what’s comprehension?”.

Easy progress made me complacent, so that when I encountered more difficult subjects – calculus springs to mind – I lacked the mental stamina to tackle them: I had never, if you will, learned how to learn.

But I was lucky, finding work in the City, where the relationship between hard work and success is tenuous. I enjoyed my career immensely, and things worked out well. So I’ve never had a chip on my shoulder about failing to get into Cambridge. No, hardly at all.

BetCoin

Distrustful of fiat currencies? It’s time you invested in something completely safe. BetCoin’s unbeatable algorithm will guarantee you exciting returns!

(Not a recommendation)

Cryptocurrencies have been described as a transformative technology that could revolutionise a number of industries. Because they cannot be printed or seized, cryptocurrencies may also provide a safe store of value.

While the success of any cryptocurrency project is not assured, early investors in a crypto project that reaches its goals can be richly rewarded over the long term. This is why BetCoin is so exciting.

BetCoin has nothing to do with betting or gambling: in fact it’s almost the opposite: a risk-free way to make money. It takes its name from Betty, our sawn-off Jack Russell cross rescue, well known around Hertfordshire and Buckinghamshire as a trustworthy investment expert and a model of financial probity.

Betty, “a model of financial probity”, with Piggy

A new BetCoin can only be created each time Betty fetches her Piggy. This unique algorithm will strictly limit the number of BetCoins which can ever be issued, so you can trust BetCoin in a way that you could never trust the US Federal Reserve or the Bank of England.

To explain the maximum number of BetCoins which could be created, here are the guiding principles:

  • We estimate Betty’s age at nine years old
  • Jack Russells typically live 13-16 years
  • We do not expect her to be still fetching Piggy after the age of 14
  • She typically fetches Piggy about forty times a day
  • The daily total of “fetches” for the purpose of determining the issue of BetCoin will be strictly capped at fifty per day
  • All fetches will be completed on our Olympic standard Piggy fetching course
Olympic standard

So assuming we are blessed with five more years of our wonderful Betty, that would give a maximum issue of 5 x 365 x 50 = 91,250. In addition we will cap the total issue at 85,000. No more can ever be issued.*. This is your absolute guarantee against inflation, and against the price ever going down.

Your BetCoin will be held in a totally secure digital wallet. You will be the only person who can access it.§

BetCoin has been enthusiastically endorsed totally ignored by Sir David Attenborough, Tom Hanks and MoneySavingExpert.com founder Martin Lewis. So what are you waiting for? Unload your outmoded and treacherous dollars, euros, sterling and yen into our account (BetCoin Philanthropies, Vladivostok) and we will exchange them for shiny new BetCoin. You can’t lose!

Here is a picture of Sir David Attenborough

*except in certain special circumstances.

§ to enhance your security, BetCoin Philanthropies Inc. will also have access to your secure digital wallet.

Cautionary note: to make a profit out of BetCoin, you will need to find an even bigger idiot than you to sell it to. But don’t worry, there are plenty out there.

Trevor bloody Howard and the last mystery

Some time in 1981, Debbie rang home from her university accommodation. “Hello Mum!” she said. “Trevor bloody Howard!” replied Beryl.

You see, a few weeks earlier, they had been trying to remember the stars of Noel Coward’s classic film Brief Encounter. They had come up with Celia Johnson quickly enough, but they were stumped when it came to the actor playing the charming doctor who so carefully removed the grit from Laura’s eye. With no internet to settle the matter, and no Halliwell’s Film Guide to hand, the question remained unresolved for weeks until Beryl had her light bulb moment. Frustrating, for a while, but imagine the wave of relief and joy when the answer finally came in.

The internet age had still not arrived when Debbie and I, on holiday in the Lake District, found ourselves reaching for the name of, you know, That Woman who starred in all those swimming movies in the 1940s and 50s. Our reference books were out of reach. Phil will know, we thought, he’s a film expert. Nor had the mobile phone era arrived for us, so we paid hotel call charges (remember those?) to phone him. Unfortunately he couldn’t help us. When we got home to our books, we identified the lady as Esther (bloody) Williams. And later we discovered we should instead have called my Auntie Speff – she knew the answer straight away.

And how entertaining those pub arguments were: we could argue all evening about trivial facts, becoming more certain the more we drank, with no ready access to information to settle the matter. Phil (yes, it is he again) once rang me from a pub where he was in dispute with a fellow customer, and put me on the line to explain to this stranger why he was in the wrong about the Honeycombs or Wayne Fontana or something. Whether this persuaded him I cannot say, but it was an interesting diversion, which would not arise in the smartphone era.

The brain is a strange thing, but when it fails us we learn something about it. Those elusive names: Him, in that awful Cadfael. Her, Beattie in the BT adverts, married to Him, who wrote Bar Mitzvah Boy. Her, Room with a View and Bellatrix. Him with the luvvie voice in Never the Twain, mercilessly spoofed on Spitting Image, dropping hints for a knighthood. Him, the first artistic director and frequent actor at Shakespeare’s Globe.

These treacherous names flick on and off in my head like Christmas lights (and have done for many years, so I claim this is not a consequence of ageing), and when they elude me, I try to shun the internet, and discipline myself to locate the answer in my brain’s imperfect filing system. I get better results if I abandon my frenzied pursuit for a while and change the subject: a later approach, as if from a different angle, often brings the answer in as a new pathway is found inside my head.

When the internet arrived, and search engines became efficient, it became easier to find facts and answers, but also easier to spread lies and errors – so the truth is easy to find, but not always easy to identify or confirm. Nevertheless I assumed that these trivial teasers would die out. But at least two more exquisite, tantalising mysteries awaited me.

One had teased us for years, which even the internet had failed to resolve. It was a film we saw at the cinema, in our first year or two together. All we could remember was a gag where an overweight, greasy fellow with a quiff is asked “Have you ever been told you look like Elvis? He takes it as a compliment, and replies “Thank you very much.” But what was the film?

We never saw it on TV, and numerous attempts to Google the answer failed. I posted the question on film message boards without success. Finally in 2010 I grew so frustrated that I resorted to old-fashioned technology, and flipping through my old diaries found in the 1988 volume a scribbled entry naming a film which had left no other trace in my memory:

Armed with the title, Stars and Bars, I soon confirmed from the comments on the IMDb entry that there was indeed a late period Elvis lookalike in the plot. This had to be the one! Debbie had a birthday coming up, so I bought a VHS – the film hadn’t made it to DVD – wrapped it in multiple layers and presented it to her, labelled The last mystery.

When we watched it, two things became clear. Firstly it was indeed the film with the Elvis joke in it, and we duly celebrated solving this ancient riddle. Secondly it was a truly terrible film: no wonder we had forgotten it, no wonder it hadn’t made it to DVD. Daniel Day-Lewis’s performance in this “goofball” “comedy” as a British art expert in pursuit of a Renoir in the US southern states was so dreadful and embarrassing that Hollywood even withheld his customary Oscar.

The last mystery turned out to be the penultimate mystery. Many years ago, no doubt out of consideration for my biographer, I transferred all our old reel-to-reel tapes to cassette. Later Rob kindly digitised them, and among the readings and sketches of our teenaged years, and low quality recordings of One Road by Love Affair and Build Me Up Buttercup I found a song I didn’t recognise. What on earth was it? I thought it rather plodding and dreary. The lyric went:

I am the singer and I will sing a song
All about the people and you can sing along

At the end of the muddy recording was the unmistakable sound of Alan “Fluff” Freeman’s voice, tantalisingly cut off before he named the song. So it was presumably recorded from Pick of the Pops one Sunday afternoon: I couldn’t find a likely title which had charted, so most likely it was played as a new release.

Shazam, SoundHound and repeated Googling over a number of years failed to identify the song, until one time – more in hope than expectation – trying yet again, I landed on a lyric site which credited it to Cliff Richard. Well I know what Cliff sounds like, and this certainly wasn’t him, but at last I had a lead, and I soon identified the song and recording as Raymond Froggatt’s The Singer. Case solved. I remember Froggatt being heavily promoted: we used to laugh at his name, and wonder why he hadn’t chosen a new one, as Harry Webb and Reginald Dwight did. He did have some success, scoring top ten hits as a writer with The Dave Clark Five’s The Red Balloon, and Cliff Richard’s Big Ship. But this song never scratched the charts.

That our most teasing riddles were posed by Stars and Bars and The Singer suggests that the most satisfyingly difficult questions are likely to emerge from the mediocre and the downright awful. But I suspect that’s it. There will be no more mysteries, ever.

And yet…where did we have that Chinese meal?

The People Versus @ The Bullingdon (Oxford) 2022-11-04

I’m sharing this excellent and enthusiastic review from music blogger Mylene and the Class of last Friday’s Oxford gig by my daughter Alice’s band The People Versus. Enjoy!

Live gig review It’s the busiest I’ve ever seen the place. Surely this audience size is far beyond safe capacity, and that seems odd: aren’t half of …

The People Versus @ The Bullingdon (Oxford) 2022-11-04

Spotify serendipity

Big tech companies, of course, are evil. So it’s unfashionable, if obvious, to point out that, in some ways, they’ve made life better. Anyone who remembers AltaVista has cause to be grateful to Google for the accuracy of their searches. And YouTube can find many interesting videos in seconds.

Amazon may be a horrible place to work, but the experience for customers is superb. You can either spend two hours trawling what’s left of the high street for a Black Labrador calendar, or buy one from Amazon in two minutes. (And when they fully automate their warehouses, those horrible jobs might give way to no jobs.)

Apple make obscene profits, but users are still delighted with the functionality and feel of their iPhones. And social media have undoubtedly helped lies to travel further and faster, and contributed to the increasing polarisation and toxicity of political discourse, but hey, people Like my holiday pics.

Spotify cannot, of course, claim to be in the same league as these giants. Within the music streaming market, it faces serious competition from those same tech giants in the guises of YouTube Music, Amazon Prime and Apple Music. Spotify is my music source of choice: I subscribe to their Premium service. At £9.99 per month (ad-free) to access just about all the music I care about, old and new, this seems extraordinarily good value for customers.

It ain’t perfect, though. Their curated playlists seem designed to avoid strongly flavoured songs which might turn listeners away. This is only an impression, but their algorithm seems tilted towards the inoffensive (Ed Sheeran) at the expense of the passionate (Adele). The result, I fear, might be to push music in the direction of muzak. It may be harder for musicians to get a hearing for songs that some love and some hate.

And it isn’t great for artists trying to break through. (I have taken an interest in this since my daughter has been in a band, The People Versus). Every 1,000 streams get about £3. For a four piece band to each earn just £10,000 annually from streaming – even ignoring their expenses and shares due to their record label, songwriters and music publishers – they need about 13 million streams. Small beer for Lady Gaga or Ed Sheeran, but a huge stretch for up-and-coming artists.

To illustrate, I was recently charmed at a gig by a band called Oi Va Voi singing Through the Maze. Twenty years ago, I would have bought a CD to own the track for about £10, of which perhaps £1 might have found its way to the artist. But now it’s right there on Spotify or YouTube at no extra cost, or if you listen to a few adverts, free. I would need to play the song 300 times on Spotify for the band to get that £1.

The good news for new artists, though, is that they can now keep most of the proceeds of their music. If they can finance their own recordings and videos, then the other main previous functions of record labels – organising the manufacturing and distribution – are largely redundant. The only area left to them is promotion, and the cynic in me suspects that this mostly consists of knowing who and how much to bribe to get your song on to popular playlists, radio shows, TV shows or films, or to get the artist a prestigious award or a key support slot on a big tour.

With the earnings from music now relatively transparent, it is tougher for record labels to get a decent return from their investment in new artists. These changes are reshaping the music industry, perhaps favouring big established artists over new music and middle-ranking acts. I suspect it has raised the stakes, making it harder to break through, but increasing the potential rewards. The days where artists could make a decent living in the second division are probably gone.

But from the customer’s perspective, Spotify is excellent: just about whatever you want to hear, wherever, whenever, however you want it. But the unexpected bonus for me has come from its algorithm. At the end of of a playlist – or even after a single song request – it will keep playing more songs, based on the music other users have played alongside your choices. I thought I knew a lot of music, but over the last few months the algorithm has introduced me to some great records I’d never heard before, as I rattle the pots and pans, clearing up after dinner.

It’s not infallible, of course. Quite often it plays me something over-familiar: I don’t need to hear All Right Now again, thanks. Or something I hate. (No more ELO, please). Or something I remember quite fondly, but don’t really need to hear again (Back Off Boogaloo). Or something I’ve never heard before, which is just awful, or just meh.

But sometimes it finds me a beloved record which I haven’t heard – or even thought of – for years, and I am joyfully reunited with a forgotten classic. Even better, a song I’ve never heard before comes on, and…oh…oh. I stop what I’m doing, and listen. Then I play it again, and maybe three more times: suddenly I’m like a kid again, getting my 45 out of its sleeve, playing it to death. I flatter myself that I know a lot of music, and discoveries are harder to make as I get older and feel more sceptical: how refreshing, then to feel that thrill again. It can make my day.

Here are some of the discoveries Spotify has brought to me over the last few months. Of course, these reflect my own taste. But do try letting Spotify run on once in a while when your playlist is over. Somewhere in there you may find a gem that you will treasure for life. I’ve written about Spotify but the links are to YouTube. Ain’t that the way.

Saunders’ Ferry Lane – Sammi Smith

When this was released in 1970 as the opening track on Smith’s album Help Me Make It Through The Night, I wouldn’t have given it a hearing: I couldn’t have got past that hair, that vocal twang. Country music just wasn’t cool – although Sammi Smith did later join the so-called “outlaw” movement with the likes of Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings, rebelling against the Nashville and Grand Ole Opry establishment.

But cool be damned. Saunders’ Ferry Lane is an exquisite song with a beautiful vocal. It describes, with an aching sense of loss, a visit in winter to the place where she had been with her lover in summer. We fear she might take drastic action at the waterside, but the lyric of the final verse reassures us, as she drives away. Inexplicably the song fades before the narrative is complete – perhaps the producer judged anything over 3 minutes and 3 seconds too long for radio play.

The desolate location is painted in vivid, atmospheric detail. Sentimental, yes, but hear the pain and emptiness in her voice when she drops away on the line “in the way we loved each other”, and the heartbreaking silence after “quietly as the dawn”. Listen only when you’re feeling strong.

Fu Manchu – Desmond Dekker

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, reggae was also not cool – the only white kids in Britain who listened to it were skinheads, whose enthusiasm for black Caribbean music was no barrier to racist attacks on Indian and Pakistani kids. Paul McCartney had made a nod to reggae in Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da in the White Album from 1968, and Led Zeppelin had mystified their fans with D’yer Mak’er in 1973. But it wasn’t until Eric Clapton hit with his version of Bob Marley’s I Shot The Sheriff in 1974, followed by triumphant London gigs by Bob Marley and the Wailers in 1975 that reggae found a mass white audience. By then, we had missed so much.

I listened with fresh ears to hits I had ignored, like Desmond Dekker’s Israelites, It Mek and 007 (Shanty Town). When punk arrived in 1977, it had a strong affinity with reggae, and – with the guidance of my cousin Jon Brockbank, who worked as a reviewer for Echoes magazine – I discovered many more reggae favourites, including Identity by The Mighty Diamonds, Conscious Man by the Jolly Brothers, and Police and Thieves by Junior Murvin.

It was after listening to the likes of these that Spotify proffered Desmond Dekker’s Fu Manchu from 1968. Dekker’s light, fluid vocal and the infectious beat had me hooked from the opening. The lyric may not be quite worthy of the soulfulness with which he sings, but the song is nevertheless irresistible. There is the bonus of some playful scat towards the end.

I Never Dreamed – The Cookies

The Cookies 1962 hit Chains had been covered by the Beatles on their Please Please Me album. But it was the Beatles who caused the Cookies’ I Never Dreamed – the most perfect and lovely of girl group records – to flop.

Gerry Goffin, the longtime collaborator and husband of Carole King, co-wrote this song with producer Russ Titelman. Unfortunately the record was released in 1964, a few months after the Beatles had turned the US music scene upside down. With the exception of Motown’s Supremes, girl groups were finished: no-one was interested in this charming, ecstatic teenage love song.

The Bargain Store – Dolly Parton

Dolly! I have loved Dolly Parton ever since I heard Jolene on the radio in 1973. The song did nothing in England until it reached the top ten in 1976. Despite her status as a global giant of and beloved icon of country music, few people would know more than three songs she has written – Jolene, of course, 9 to 5 and I Will Always Love You, more famous from Whitney Houston’s version.

I had heard The Bargain Store before, but had dismissed it as a lightweight song. On hearing it again a few years later it struck me as a sweet little song. It describes a woman damaged by a relationship, open to new love. When issued it was dropped from a number of country stations’ playlists because programmers thought the line “you can easily afford the price” was a reference to prostitution, when Dolly makes it clear that “Love is all you need to purchase all the merchandise”. Not too bright, those country stations.

Dolly tells the story in her 2020 book Songteller. “When I wrote The Bargain Store, I swear on my life that I was never thinking about love in any vulgar way, I was using the ‘bargain’ as it related to a broken relationship. But every man I know thinks it’s dirty. Somehow, this lyric is a dirty thing to a man. But I never saw it that way.”

The Fool – Sanford Clark

This song wasn’t new to me, but despite loving it when I discovered rockabilly in the 1970s, it had dropped off my radar until Spotify reminded me. It’s a very simple song, with a hypnotic guitar riff – co-written by Lee Hazelwood, who went on to success with Duane Eddy and Nancy Sinatra.

You Don’t Know – Bob Andy

Another reggae gem I’ve only recently discovered. Bob Andy was half of Bob and Marcia, who scored a UK no. 5 in 1970 with Young Gifted and Black. The lyric of You Don’t Know isn’t perfect:

They say you're looking slim
Are you sure to sweat out in a gym?
You even need a trim

but Andy carries it beautifully with his warm expressive voice. Jon Brockbank recalls meeting him at Reggae Sunsplash: “I remember him as a tall friendly dread, very different from his Bob and Marcia afro days.”

Alone again Or – Love

Love were a racially diverse band based in LA: band member Bryan MacLean wrote the song as Alone Again in 1965, inspired by his memory of waiting for a girlfriend. But it was not completed until 1967, when Love frontman Arthur Lee remixed the track to make his own vocals more prominent, and changed the title to Alone Again Or to add a little mystery. Arranger David Angel then added a string section, and a horn part, played by a mariachi band which had recently featured on a Tijuana Brass album.

The lyric treads the line between positivity and desperation:

You know that I could be in love with almost everyone
I think that people are
The greatest fun
And I will be alone again tonight my dear

The song made little impression in the US, and barely scraped into the UK top 30. But over the years it has quietly acquired classic status. An elusive melody, but a haunting song.

Stop the lazy bad guy signalling

The villains were easy to spot in silent movies. They had long dark cloaks and top hats, and they laughed maniacally as they twirled their long moustaches while tying pretty girls to railway lines. (Actually, no, but still, you know what I mean. Think Dick Dastardly.)

I’d like to say that the film industry has become more sophisticated in the last century or so, but I’m not sure I can. Of course bad guy fashions change a bit, especially if there’s a war on: Native Americans, Mexicans, Germans, Japanese, Chinese, Russians…English, of course. Hollywood is obviously pitching to an audience who need a bit of help. How do we know that Indiana Jones is a good guy in Raiders of the Lost Ark? Because he’s up against the Nazis, naturally.

We English can take it. Historically we’re not an oppressed nation: Britons, it is said, never, never, never shall be slaves. And we understand that the American habit of demonising the English arises from a lingering feeling of inferiority: despite winning the War of Independence, becoming global top dog (at the time of writing) and dominating world trade and finance (at the time of writing), Americans suspect that the English are still somehow one up on them.

I’m talking about the English here, not the British. If you see a Scottish fellow in a Hollywood movie, he is probably the quirky lovable boyfriend or a heroic wild bearded and kilted clansman fighting impossible odds against the treacherous and brutal English. The only bad Scot you’ll see on screen is when the whole cast is Scottish, and the drama requires it. Note that to avoid baffling their audience, American films will only feature the softest of Scottish accents, or else give the part to a good safe American or Australian.

The Welsh, however…allow me to declare an interest. Although I was born and raised in England, have lived here all my life, have a home counties accent and generally identify as English, my father and grandfather grew up in Wales, and my DNA profile has me 66% Welsh, compared to a mere 28% English and Northwestern European. As a middle class, apparently English, straight white male I’m not a natural candidate to claim victimhood, but encouraged by this DNA result I’ll have a go: have you seen how Welsh people are portrayed in films or television, if they are portrayed at all? Wikipedia’s “List of fictional Welsh people” is pitifully small:

Of course that could be a Wikipedia problem rather than a Welsh one. Nor is this about Anthony Hopkins, whose portrayal of the murderous Hannibal “the cannibal” Lecter was resolutely English. Hollywood has provided some sentimental films (starring mostly Americans) such as How Green was My Valley. But Welshmen on film and British television are typically shown as loquacious, smarmy and untrustworthy. Perhaps Shakespeare started it with the verbose Fluellen in Henry V.

One prominent Welsh role omitted from Wikipedia’s modest list is Spike from Notting Hill, played by Rhys Ifans and scripted mostly as an idiot. Spike, like Fluellen, is undoubtedly a good guy: (spoilers) he galvanises the team into action by pointing out that Hugh Grant’s character has been a “daft prick” and bravely holds up the London traffic to ensure the success of the mandatory zany dash.

But we cannot forget the protagonist’s description of him as a “masturbating Welshman”. I can’t imagine that treatment being dished out to a Scottish character except perhaps in Trainspotting, where they’re all Scottish. The Welsh suffer from gross underrepresentation in film and TV, and when they do appear, it is usually in an unflattering light.

My second complaint arises from my modest height. Remember Shrek? The villain of the piece is Lord Farquaad: he’s certainly a nasty piece of work. But he is repeatedly mocked and short-shamed by the good guys when he clearly has no control over his height.

Farquaad is just one example of the stereotypical short, sneaky guy, characterised by actors like Danny DeVito. To be fair, this is part of a long-established tradition: over 200 years ago it suited British interests to paint Napoleon as comically small, although it seems he was of average height.

More serious, though, is the issue of disability and facial disfigurement. Again, I must declare an interest. My daughter Alice was born with a cleft lip and palate – happily, due to the care of the NHS and the skill of its surgeons, you wouldn’t see it now unless you look for it. She is weary of disfigurement being used as shorthand for evil. She grew up watching The Lion King, where the bad guy not only has a scar on his face, he is literally named after it. Alice has shared some of her feelings in response to the issue.

“The first time I saw a cleft lip on TV was Tom Burke in Casanova , and his cleft lip was noted a sign of his father’s sin, or similar. And the first time I got angry about a scar as shorthand for evil was in the 2013 Lone Ranger reboot with Johnny Depp. There was also a backlash to Roald Dahl’s The Witches (2020), with disabled communities being very disappointed in hand deformities being shown as monstrous. I suppose monstrous is a key word here, often characters with physical deformities and disabilities are shorthanded for ‘not fully human’ and therefore hateable and sometimes killable without guilt in the wider plot. This is something which definitely contributes to ableism in wider society.”

In fiction, scars and burns are usually assumed to be the just deserts for evil deeds in the past. The Joker from Batman is an exception: his unusual features were said to be the result of an accidental fall into a tank of chemical waste, which also turned him insane. Hardly his fault, then, but he’s ugly, so he must be the bad guy, right? And if you spot an albino in a film, he probably ain’t a good guy. There are plenty more examples of disability or disfigurement being used to signal villainy: Captain Hook, Voldemort (although Harry Potter did sport a rather neat scar), the Phantom of the Opera, Darth Vader and Freddy Krueger to name a few.

The highest profile and most prolific offender in the disfigurement-villainy trope has been the James Bond franchise: Blofeld, Le Chiffre, Jaws, Emilio Largo, Alec Trevelyan, Zao, Raoul Silva and counting.

In 2018, Changing Faces, the visual difference and disfigurement charity, launched a campaign called I Am Not Your Villain, to address this issue. If the producers of the Bond franchise noticed, they certainly didn’t care. They pressed on with No Time To Die, featuring Rami Malek as the disfigured villain Safin, released eventually in 2021.

Rami Malek as Safin (picture: Universal/MGM)

Just to be sure, they added Dali Benssalah as Primo, an evil accomplice with a bionic eye, and Christoph Waltz as Blofeld. No sign of any sensitivity to disfigurement issues yet.

This matters. According to research carried out by Changing Faces, people with visible differences report long-term impacts from not being represented in society and across popular culture: a third report low levels of confidence, 3 in 10 have struggled with body image and low self-esteem, and a quarter say it has affected their mental health. These people have enough to deal with without films and books constantly depicting villains as disabled or with visual differences, which encourages fear, mocking of bodily difference, and bullying, whether online or in person.

Film makers or actors should not be allowed to argue that the appearance of their villains is “in context” or necessary for characterisation. They’re just being lazy. Disability advocate Jen Campbell has written a superb takedown of the lazy evil-signalling habits inherent in the Bond films, and the damage it causes. As she says:

Where is the nuanced storytelling? Why can’t they trust audiences to recognise ‘bad guys’ without these markers? Why does a villainous backstory heavily rely on disability and why doesn’t disability and disfigurement intersect with plot in more meaningful ways, in Bond films and beyond? Besides being offensive, it’s lazy and boring.

Film makers and actors take note. Please don’t create or accept roles perpetuating negative stereotypes about disabled or facially disfigured people. It is never acceptable to insult, mock or prejudge people for characteristics they cannot control. It’s time we moved on.

Survey monkeys

I recently made a small purchase on Amazon. A few days later I learned by email that the delivery had been made – such are the dimensions of Edwards Towers. I checked the front porch, and there it was. All good, as ordered. The email asked me to rate the delivery: I was offered It was great or Not so great.

Great? If a basic task is performed successfully, is that great? Have expectations sunk so low? Should we shake the postman’s hand in congratulation every morning? I had a Bupa customer survey where Great was the second best option out of five. Was half the world conquered by Alexander the Meets Expectations? Was Russia terrorised by Ivan the Disappointing?

One survey gave me the opportunity to score my satisfaction on a scale from 1 to 10. Number 1 was defined as “Did not meet expectations”, 10 was “Exceeded expectations”, leaving me eight scores to choose from if it met my very wide range of expectations.

You can’t go for a night out without receiving surveys asking for your feedback on the restaurant, the theatre, the taxi ride home. I realise that brief and accurate feedback is the backbone of some successful businesses: Amazon Marketplace, Uber, Tripadvisor etc. It’s the long surveys I really resent: “It will only take twenty minutes”. Twenty minutes!

After a positive consumer experience, I have sometimes, in a spirit of goodwill, commenced on a survey, only to give up in boredom and frustration when the sixth page of questions comes in view with no end in sight. Or when I get to unrelated questions, like “Do you worry about your pension provision?” and realise that the survey has quietly moved from gathering feedback into soliciting marketing information.

It seems that most surveys are designed for convenience of analysis: some barely offer the opportunity to use words, relying on endless satisfaction scores. Words are what most people would choose to express their opinions, but are untidy when you try to add them up.

Surveys are also often designed to tell the business what it wants to hear, or at least to avoid confronting them with the truth. Once my wife was asked to complete a survey about her hospital meals: was the food served hot, did it arrive when expected, was there a vegetarian option? Nowhere did she get the chance to say it tasted disgusting.

I have sometimes been reduced to guerrilla tactics: the survey from my dental practice was mercifully short, and did offer an opportunity to use my own words, but I couldn’t resist:

Of course, my dentist might be annoyed by the facetious reply, but hey, what are they going to do about it? Oh…

Sometimes the demand for feedback is so persistent that it borders on aggressive. I took my car to a Nissan dealer in Watford for a recall. The experience was quite satisfactory, until I received this in an email from them:

I would be grateful if you could complete the questionnaire scoring your service advisor all 10’s if you were happy with the service that you received. I know it is a high score to ask, but Nissan view anything below a 9 as a failure. If for any reason you feel that you cannot give us the above score, then please could you reply to this email before completing the questionnaire, and I can address any concerns you may have.

Of course I ignored this: beside my usual aversion to surveys, I resented being instructed on what score to give them. A week later, I felt like a schoolboy being told off for not completing his homework:

You may remember we told you about a survey you would receive and the importance of scoring us 10/10! Would you be happy to complete the survey as it would help the service advisors personally?

This last sentence is designed to make you feel like a bad person if you refuse. As I write I worry that my refusal may have had terrible consequences for the perfectly pleasant young fellow who was my service advisor. Perhaps I had turned a deaf ear to a cry for help from a victim of Japanese corporate culture, and caused Nissan to demand a ritual resignation, just as surely as if I had given him 8/10.

If surveys are supposed to make customers feel they’re being listened to, it’s not working here. The design I find least annoying is brief and personal, just two or three questions asking for verbal answers: e.g. what did you most enjoy about your visit? What did we get wrong? Name one thing we could improve. Without insisting on an answer, or chasing people up. Ideally (and this might be a stretch) a brief acknowledgment worded in a way which confirms that the response has been read and understood. That would feel like being listened to.

So please, don’t invite me to participate in your survey, even if there’s a chance of winning a £25 Waitrose voucher. Unless it’s as one of the hundred people answering the questions for Pointless. Now that would be fun.

Votes for Members

Sir Nicholas Goodison

In early 1985, change was in the air for the London Stock Exchange (LSE). For decades stockbrokers had charged a fixed scale of minimum commission, and the distinction between stockjobbers, who traded stock on their own account, and stockbrokers, who could act only as agents, had been rigidly enforced.

This system had proved robust, and had certain advantages. It aligned the brokers’ and clients’ interests – as there was no discussion about commission rates, brokers were incentivised to provide the best research and negotiate the best dealing price for their clients. As for the jobbers, being constituted as partnerships or unlimited liability companies, if they failed the owners were personally liable. As a result, risk was very carefully managed, and failures were rare.

But this modest appetite for risk was consigning the City of London to the second division of world equity markets. The Thatcher government had ambitions for London as a global financial centre: also, and not unreasonably, saw the minimum commission scale as a cosy cartel.

Cecil Parkinson, the Trade and Industry Secretary, had Margaret Thatcher’s backing to shake up the LSE. In 1983 he negotiated rule changes with Chairman Nicholas Goodison: the carrot was the continued growth of the LSE, and of London as a financial centre. The stick was the threat of being taken to the Restrictive Practices Court over commission rules.

By 1985, the LSE was ready to put forward detailed proposals to its members. The most important was that Member Firms (whether brokers or jobbers) could now be owned by a single non-member (in practice, a limited company). This would pave the way for the partners who owned the broking and jobbing firms to sell their firms to the big banks – mostly American or British – who wanted a foothold in the growing London market. Other changes included permitting member firms to take positions in stock, and abolishing the fixed commission scale. These changes, which became known as “Big Bang” would also introduce computerised, screen based trading, and soon lead to the end of the Stock Exchange trading floor.

***************

By now, my career was starting to take off. I had been at Gilbert Eliott (a broking firm) for over three years: I had passed the four parts of the LSE membership examination, and was bringing in new business for the Preference desk. It was becoming clear that members would be offered shares in exchange for their ownership of the LSE, and that these shares would be valuable: besides the value of the Exchange as a business, the LSE owned the Stock Exchange Tower at 125 Old Broad Street, 26 floors of prime London property.

The Stock Exchange Tower pictured from the National Westminster Tower (1983) (Photo: Richard Hoare)

My boss in the Preference Department was Robert Wild, a shrewd and patient mentor. Spotting an opportunity to provide a benefit to employees at no cost to the firm, he put me and our market dealer Roger forward to become Members. I was quite flattered by this: three years was the minimum period of service in an LSE firm to obtain membership, and I had only been there a few months longer than that. I was still a lowly “Blue Button”, allowed to check prices but not officially to deal. I was now in line for the coveted “Silver Button” which denoted Membership, bypassing the intermediate Yellow. Our applications were successful, and on 11th April 1985 Roger and I celebrated becoming LSE members.

Numbered just 000030

But there was a fly in the ointment. Once it became known that members’ shares would become transferable and saleable, the LSE feared “speculative distortions in the pattern of application for membership”. So they had ruled that any applicants after 10th January could still be granted membership, but would not receive a share or vote.

“…you are not a shareholder, therefore not a Proprietor.”

Roger and I weren’t happy about this. Gilbert Eliott weren’t famously generous employees, and the rumoured value of the new members’ shares was substantial. We didn’t like the idea of the door being slammed in our faces. But what could we do about it? Only try to kick up a fuss. I asked Robert Wild if he objected to our launching a campaign. He did not, although he quite reasonably asked that we should keep Gilbert Eliott’s name out of it – the firm was in the midst of delicate negotiations with a potential buyer, an Austrian bank called Girozentrale. Any whiff of scandal or trouble could have derailed the whole deal.

We obtained a list of the people who, like us, had been admitted to membership after January 10th, and circulated them all via the pigeonholes at the Stock Exchange with a letter – so incendiary that no copies survive – drawing attention to the injustice of the situation, and calling them to action: a call which was largely answered. Some contributed by writing strongly worded letters to the press and to Sir Nicholas Goodison.

My effort was this letter to the Financial Times, which spawned a small news item in that newspaper, and soon afterwards the leading story in Financial Weekly:

Looking back, I feel some embarrassment about this campaign. An overpaid young man missing out on a bit of extra money was not the worst problem in the world. And my arguments are transparently self-serving: was I really concerned about having a say in the Stock Exchange’s future, or just annoyed to be missing out on a juicy payout? But we did feel a sense of injustice, and wanted to take some kind of action.

Our campaign had, I estimate, zero impact. As we had no votes, the Stock Exchange could happily ignore our opinion. If anything we might have persuaded some voting members to vote in favour of the Deed of Settlement before a bunch of new arrivals came in and diluted their shareholding.

But the LSE and Sir Nicholas had much bigger problems to grapple with. Many members, especially those who had not achieved partner status in their firms, and members of smaller and provincial firms, felt that the changes were being rushed through on disadvantageous terms so that the partners in large firms could cash in. The Deed of Settlement vote required a 75% vote to pass, a high hurdle. Sir Nicholas made a determined case for a yes vote:

Sir Nicholas tries to face down the rebels

Anecdotal evidence had it that some of the larger firms, where partners had a great deal to gain from the proposals passing, were ruthless in pressuring their employees to vote in favour. One firm allegedly demanded that voting forms should not be posted direct, but returned to their secretary’s office – presumably so that the partners could check that people had voted the “right” way, and could bully or discipline those who had not. Imagine what the press would make of such behaviour in a trade union strike ballot.

Despite his urbane and charming personality, Sir Nicholas had become something of a hate figure among sections of the membership in the course of his attempts to implement change: some years later, when he became chairman of TSB Group, one colourful character went to the trouble of buying shares in the company, just so he could continue to harangue and heckle Goodison at meetings.

On June 4th I nervously turned on Channel 4 evening news (yes, this was national news) to hear the result of the vote. The Deed of Settlement vote had failed. Good news.

“Shares will now be allotted to those who have been elected to Membership since 10th January”

So the shares issued in exchange for membership rights would not after all be transferable. But we new joiners celebrated because one share was issued to each of us, and we now enjoyed the same rights as long established members. Our campaign may have had little impact, but we had arrived at our destination by a different route, thanks to the rebellious streak in a large minority of the voting membership.

Though I didn’t give it much thought at the time, my willingness to get involved in a battle might have hindered my career if I became known as a troublemaker. In retrospect, that might be why I spent my career mostly in challenger firms. I wasn’t made of the right stuff for the bigger, established firms.

The shares did turn out to be valuable, eventually. In 2000, as part of the London Stock Exchange’s proposal to become a listed company, they were repaid at £10,000 each. That certainly felt like a victory – even if we hadn’t earned it ourselves.

And Big Bang. Was it worth it? The LSE certainly saw very strong growth in business, and it did my career no harm. But some argue that it was part of a process where market participants grew larger, more interconnected and more sophisticated. They were then better able to insulate themselves from the consequences of their own poor credit decisions, by packaging up and selling risk in opaque and poorly understood securities. And that was a major cause of the 2008 Financial Crisis.

Fun in the Pugwash Lounge

During my first week at the University of Warwick in October 1975, I noticed the secondhand bookshop, tucked in a corner of the Students’ Union shop. It was in the brand new Union Building, which had a quirky, angular design, with plenty of unexpected and interesting spaces where students could indulge their favourite passion, drinking. Naturally, within days the floors of this shiny new place were sticky with spilt beer.

The secondhand bookshop was a sad affair. There were a few tired old books in a wooden cupboard, and it was obvious that none of my economics course books were there. The shop operated as an agent: it didn’t buy books outright – that would be very risky without knowledge of the currently recommended textbooks for each course. Instead, the seller was given a numbered ticket, and its counterpart was placed inside the book. When the book sold, the ticket was filed in order, and when the student checked back, he or she would be paid out on the tickets in the sold box. They could reclaim their unsold books at any time.

We didn’t bother with the titles, just the price.

This was a sensible enough system: it would be asking a lot of the pleasant but rather undermotivated shop staff to put a price on every book which came in, when reading lists could change so suddenly. So a rigid pricing scheme was enforced: the books were offered at 60% of the original cover price, of which (if they sold) the seller would receive 5/6ths, i.e. 50% of the cover price, with the shop keeping the balance for administration.

There were problems with this structure. In 1975, UK inflation was running at 24% – an interesting time to be studying economics. So if a student had bought a textbook new for, say, £6 two years ago, that book could easily have a new cover price of £9 by the time they decided to sell it – often virtually pristine. Yet they would receive only £3. The problem was worse for older books, such as classic literature paperbacks, whose cover prices were by now absurdly low.

As a result, the textbooks which did change hands were mostly from handwritten lists on department noticeboards. This was a time consuming, hit or miss affair: the buyer would trek across the widely spread campus, often to find that the seller was out, or that the book had already been sold.

Although I noted the flaw in the pricing scheme, and the lack of energy in the presentation and promotion of the shop, I did nothing about it. It wasn’t my problem, and I had other things to do – like finding some friends in my first year, gorging on mediocre gigs in the lean years between glam-rock and punk, the odd bit of coursework, and a brief and unfortunate flirtation with Newcastle Brown.

At Warwick, 1977/78 (Photo: Surapongs Chaudakshetrin)

But when my final year began in October 1977, the university careers service got in touch to remind us that an unforgiving real world awaited us eleven months later. They pointed out that employers liked to see a full CV, packed with interesting activities and useful experience. I hadn’t joined many societies: seeing films, doing crosswords and getting drunk didn’t seem likely to cut it. That’s when I remembered the bookshop.

The shop seemed if anything to have contracted over the previous two years. I steeled myself to approach the Students’ Union with my pitch. I proposed to take over the running of the shop, allowing sellers to set their own prices – perhaps with my guidance as I gained experience – to which the shop would add 10%. In addition, I would publicise and promote the revived shop on campus noticeboards.

I was invited to the Management Committee of the Students’ Union, no less, to outline my proposal. It turned out that the Vice President (Academic Affairs) had come to the same conclusions just four weeks earlier. The main difference was his statement “I do not believe that a service such as this should be run with an ad hoc student staff.” A student I was, but didn’t see it as “ad hoc” – I saw it as my personal project. Otherwise, it seems I was pushing on an open door.

Although the members broadly welcomed somebody prepared to try to revitalise this feeble business, some raised potential legal, practical and financial problems. Only doing their job, no doubt, but I could feel my enthusiasm draining away – committees always have that effect on me. But I gritted my teeth and persisted, vowing to ignore much that was said and push on with it on my own as planned. If I could make some kind of success of it, no-one would complain.

The Union agreed to let me have a go at running the bookshop, and allocated the wonderfully named Pugwash Lounge each weekday between 12 and 2. The location wasn’t perfect – not exactly the main drag of the Union Building. I would need to turn it into a destination. The first task was to acquire some decent stock, so people wouldn’t turn up at the grand opening to find nothing of interest. So I advertised on the noticeboards that students should bring their unwanted books to sell on the opening day.

On Wednesday 9th November, I collected a cash float from the Union office, arrived at the Union Shop to take possession of the stock, and more importantly, the wooden cupboard which would initially display the books when the shop was open and keep them safe when it was closed.

The Union Shop was at ground level, the Pugwash Lounge was two levels up. Happily the building had a disabled friendly design, with plentiful ramps. But it was a large and heavy cupboard: I wouldn’t be able to get it there on my own. I trundled the cupboard to the bottom of the ramp, and approached a group of three lads at a table, perhaps waiting for the bar to open. Would they mind helping me get the cupboard up to the Pugwash Lounge?

They readily agreed and the job was soon done. In my relief and gratitude I set down a pound note – enough for a round for three at Union bar prices in those balmy days – suggesting they reward themselves with a pint. But one of them waved it away, saying it had only taken a minute. I noticed one of the others looking balefully at him as I retreated with my pound note.

Opening up the new shop was a predictable anticlimax. I set out the stock, got the desk ready with the cash box and books of tickets, opened the door on the stroke of 12, and then…nothing. After a while, a few students wandered in, had a desultory flick through the books and left. But then a fellow came in who had seen my publicity, with a bag of ten or twelve books to sell. They looked saleable. I got busy writing tickets, and put them on sale at about two thirds of the cover price. We were in business.

Determined publicity effort 1: The Advertisement in the Warwick Boar (illustrator unknown)
Determined publicity effort 2: The Flyer
Determined publicity effort 3: The Poster

He was the first of a steady stream of sellers bringing their books in. Within a few days there was a decent level of stock: we acquired critical mass, and word got around that it was worth visiting to save money on your textbooks. After a couple of weeks, some of the sellers checked back, and were surprised to be paid out on half or more of their books. A scary looking but good-natured punk with the surname Dembinski, on the fringes of Warwick’s resident (later charting) band the VIPs, was especially pleased with his payout: I like to think he put it towards an electric guitar.

Over the weeks and months of 1977/78 the shop became modestly successful, and a steady if modest earner for the Students’ Union. Of course, it had the advantage of free labour and rent. I often had help, frequently from one of my flatmates when things got busy. Others got in touch offering to help out: one girl only attended for a couple of days. Perhaps she found it boring, or she just wanted something to put on her CV.

By June 1978 I had graduated, and I left Warwick. The bookshop was my baby, and I wanted to leave it healthy and in good hands. With about one third of the students leaving for good – and taking their textbooks with them – it was time for one last campaign: to persuade the leavers to put their books into the shop before they left.

…stuck with the rotten things for life.

Nor did I leave it at that. I wrote letters to the Students’ Union officers outlining my concerns about the display facilities in the shop: I paid a flying visit from my London flat one Saturday morning in September to help put out the stock: I requested a progress report near the end of term. I just couldn’t let it go. I should have been directing this energy at my struggling early accountancy career – the Students’ Union guys must have thought I was a right pain. Nevertheless, the Treasurer took the time to reply, with what I thought were some decent numbers in 1978 money.

At last I moved on, and stopped pestering the staff of the place I had left six months ago. But what did I get out of all of this? Apart from my original motivation – something I could talk about at job interviews – there was also, believe it or not, an element of altruism. The shop helped sellers get a good price for their books, and helped buyers save money on their textbooks – saving a good deal of money for students and reducing waste. I also received a surprise £10 Christmas bonus in recognition of my efforts from the Management Committee.

And I found a way to make some profit for myself. My habit had been to regularly visit the junk shops of Coventry looking for discarded treasures among the albums and singles, and now, once or twice I also bought a cheap selection of paperback thrillers and Agatha Christie novels – probably from house clearances – to offer in the shop. They earned a tidy little margin, provided the ancient cover price was blocked out. If customers knew the book had once been for sale at 2/6d (12.5p) then they were reluctant to pay 25p, even if the new price was now 70p.

But the main benefit of managing the shop was experience running a business in a safe environment. I didn’t have to put up capital or take any personal financial risk. The customers were, by and large, friendly and educated. The Students Union managed all the tedious administration, and even provided some lockable metal cabinets when I mentioned that we were struggling to display our stock properly. I could run my little business, experiment with what worked and what didn’t work, all under the protection of the university campus bubble.

In some ways, it provided a template for my later career, managing the preference and fixed interest department under the administrative umbrella of Collins Stewart and later Canaccord. I’d even say that my experience running the bookshop was more helpful in my profession than all the economics I learned, or didn’t. University, I discovered, is not just a place of academic learning – it’s a sandpit where you can practise for your life.

Philately will get you nowhere

In May 2021, Alice wanted to buy some vintage champagne glasses to use in filming the video for her band’s new single, the way you do. She needed someone to take her to the local car boot sale. Car boot sales are definitely not my thing, and I was initially reluctant, until I realised that I lacked certain requisites for the Edward Lear trail. Where better?

So, following in the footsteps of Queen Isabella, I scanned the tables and asked every stallholder for a set of fire irons (Alice swore she heard me asking for firearms) but for a long time all I could find were vinyl treasures from Anita Harris and Herp Alpert. The absence of fire irons was becoming frustrating and baffling, but relief and comprehension were at hand when I spotted a set for sale and made my purchase.

Perhaps the rush of adrenaline from completing this transaction got the better of me, but soon after I spotted an ancient stamp album, The Movaleaf Illustrated Stamp Album “spaces for 8,000 stamps”.

Like many other children (well, boys) of my generation, I collected stamps for a few years as a child, and a rush of nostalgia came over me as I leafed through the pages, with their educational country headings. This album, though, dated from an earlier period than my childhood, with many British and British Empire stamps from Queen Victoria, Edward VII and George V, and barely any after George VI , so I imagined it might be worth a bit.

In the 1960s my father gifted his collection, assembled in the 1920s and 1930s, to my brother and me, and (with their permission) I later sold it along with our own stamps using free ads in the local paper. I’ve since regretted selling his part of the collection, and long suspected that I sold them way too cheaply. The sturdy red binder in front of me offered some closure, and when the stallholder named his price at £35, I didn’t hesitate.

Debbie was amused that I, who abhor clutter, and who greet any new acquisition with the joyless question “where are we going to put it?”, had so wholeheartedly embraced the useless-crap-buying mood of the car boot sale.

If I’m honest, I imagined selling the collection for a small fortune. But early research suggested this wouldn’t be simple, and at the same time the album and its contents started to work its magic on me. Before even looking at the stamps, the album itself was a fascinating snapshot of history. Here are some of the more striking country descriptions from the album’s page headings:

  • Abyssinia – Until 1936 was an independent kingdom. Now conquered by Italy.
  • Austria – Formerly part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire until 1918 when a Republic was proclaimed. Now part of the German Reich.
  • Bolivia – …named after the great liberator Bolivar.
  • China – a Manchu Empire founded in 1644, became a republic in 1912.
  • Cyprus – An island in the Mediterranean formerly belonging to Turkey. Acquired by Great Britain in 1878.
  • Czecho-slovakia – …now absorbed into the German Reich
  • Danzig – Formerly part of German West Prussia. Since 1919 an independent Free State. Has now reverted to German domination.
  • Dominican Republic – A Negro Republic in the West Indies.
  • Eire (Irish Free State) – Constituted a Free State of the British Empire in 1922.
  • Fiume – Formerly a Hungarian port, annexed by Italy in 1924.
  • Falkland Islands – A group of islands off the South East Coast of South America annexed by Great Britain in 1833.
  • Hawaii/Sandwich Islands – Annexed by the United States in 1898.
  • Germany – …Since 1933 Totalitarian State formed under Adolf Hitler, subsequently Austria, Czecho-Slovakia and part of Poland were added.
  • Hayti – A Negro Republic in the West Indies.
  • Hong Kong – A Naval Station of several islands.
  • Holland – A Kingdom of North-West Europe, formerly united to Belgium as the Netherlands.
  • Iraq – An Arab Kingdom under British protection.
  • Jamaica – …conquered by Great Britain in 1670.
  • Jugo-slavia- The Kingdom in Southern Europe of the Southern Slavs, formed in 1918 by the amalgamation of Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia and Slovakia.
  • Latakia (Alaouites) – A portion of Syria administered by France.
  • Liberia – An Independent Negro Republic on the West Coast of Africa, proclaimed in 1847.
  • Newfoundland – …the oldest British Possession, discovered in 1497.
  • North Borneo – …placed under a British Protectorate in 1901.
  • Palestine – Capital – Jerusalem
  • Philippines – Formerly Spanish, ceded to United States in 1898.
  • Poland – …Conquered and partitioned by Germany and Russia, 1939.
  • Spain – …Became a Totalitarian State, March 1939, under General Franco.
  • United States of America – A Republic in North America comprising Forty-eight States.
  • Zanzibar – An island under British protection since 1890.

The entries for Germany and Poland place the publication date of the album squarely in World War 2. To a modern reader, these descriptions are heavy with educational purpose and colonial entitlement. The boys who filled these albums with stamps would be expected to defend the British Empire if called upon, as many would have been. The references to “Negro Republics” are especially jarring to modern ears. As for Jugo-Slavia, it might have been better if they hadn’t gone to that trouble in 1918. Curiously, the only individuals mentioned in the country descriptions are Bolivar, Adolf Hitler and General Franco.

I was struck especially by the word “protectorate”, which brought to mind Yul Brynner’s lines as the King of Siam in The King and I:

If allies are strong with power to protect me,
Might they not protect me out of all I own?

“…under British protection”

Looking more closely at the stamps, they dated from Victorian Penny Reds to a handful from the reign of Queen Elizabeth, one of which carried a 1957 date. The great bulk seem to have been assembled before about 1950, which pointed to an active collection period of ten years or less. That suggested a schoolboy collection, which was not promising for their value. Strangely, the pages for France and Germany looked unused – there were no stamps at all from those countries, and it appeared there never had been.

When I assembled my own collection as a child, I referred constantly to Stanley Gibbons’ Stamp Catalogue. (Or, as I’m Sorry I’ll Read That Again had it, Stanley Stamp’s Gibbon Catalogue). So I naturally thought of Stanley Gibbons as the people to go to for a valuation, and their website did indeed offer a walk-in valuation service at their Strand premises, for two hours a day, five days a week. But they also offered a caveat about the likely value of some collections:

Schoolboy collections: While some became a starting point for more serious collections, typical childhood collections were understandably built with quantity rather than value in mind and this is often reflected in their value today.

I suspected this description fitted my album perfectly. Still, you never know, right? Seventy odd years must have made some of these stamps valuable, surely. So one hot July morning I took the train into London, and laid out my album before the Gibbons man.

He leafed briskly but carefully through the album from the back, offering no comment until he had finished. His conclusion, when it came, was the one I had expected and feared: that it was indeed a schoolboy collection (most collectors were indeed boys), assembled, as I had reckoned, in the 1940s. He confirmed that Stanley Gibbons would not be making an offer for the collection, but advised that I might be able to sell it on eBay for £20 or so. Well, car boot sale man certainly saw me coming.

Adding insult to injury, the Stanley Gibbons assessor asked whether it was my collection. Mate! The album had been meticulously filled, with spaces left for gaps in the sets.

I reckon the collector was born no later than 1932. Do I look like I’m 90? I guess he wanted to assess my emotional investment in the collection before making any disparaging remarks. I was reluctant to admit that I had actually paid money, so I muttered something about having inherited it. He remarked that although not valuable, it was an interesting collection, best preserved as it was.

Fashions and demographics have not favoured stamp prices. Philately was a very popular hobby when my father was growing up in the 1930s – George V was famously a keen collector – and was still a major pastime when I grew up in the 1960s. But most forms of collecting subsequently fell from favour as boys took to gaming, then to other diversions offered by the internet. Thin demand has been met by ample supply, as collections come on offer from inheritances and house clearances. Certain stamps can still achieve sky-high prices but these are unlikely to be found in schoolboy collections.

I thought about offering selected pages for sale on eBay, but a quick browse through current listings suggested that to do so would involve much hassle and little reward. Anyway, it would be a shame to break up the collection. It’s a historical document, a veritable time capsule. I’ve decided to keep it. Or possibly try to flog it at a car boot sale. Do I hear £36, anyone?

Betty

“Abbie” on our first visit to Dogs Trust

When Cracker (our Labrador) died, it seemed disrespectful to his memory to rush to replace him as if he were a household appliance. We also had a few travel plans for my early retirement which weren’t dog friendly. So it wasn’t until 2019, almost five years after the Cracker era that we succumbed to our daughters’ (mostly Alice’s) persistent lobbying and agreed to become dog owners again.

The first question was: should we go for a rescue dog, or a puppy from a breeder? There were a few rescues in our lane who had bedded into their new owners’ lives very successfully. Our smart wooden floors also made us a little nervous of house training a puppy from scratch. So we decided to try the rescue route. Surely if we could improve the life of a troubled pooch, that was worth doing.

We compiled a list of “must haves” for the dog we wanted:

  • Small enough that we could lift it into the boot of our car without straining our backs, and that it wouldn’t be able to pull us over into the mud or ice (we could be into our late seventies within the lifetime of this dog).
  • I refused to countenance flouncy decorative yappy little dogs which would undermine my Manliness when out walking.
  • Our dog must be good with people.
  • Our dog must be good with other dogs.
  • I wanted a dog which could accompany me on runs.
  • Debbie didn’t want a dog who walked with its tail high, showing its bum off to all.

We made a few trips to dog rescue homes, and left our details with them. Suitable dogs seemed thin on the ground: for a few weeks we weren’t offered any dogs at all. We began to think we were being marked down as unfit owners.

Then we visited Dogs Trust in Harefield, where the lady said they had just completed their assessment of a dog called Abbie – a Jack Russell cross (with heaven knows what) – who might fit the bill. She had been brought over from Ireland, and was estimated to be about five years old – nothing else was known of her history. She was described as having Queen Anne legs, and she had been certified “green” on their traffic lights system, i.e. ready and safe for adoption. We were told that she hadn’t got on well with one of her kennelmates, and had “told them off”.

While they fetched Abbie, we were invited to look around at the residents, to see if any caught our eye. Inmates might have been a better description. The poor dogs looked wretched, anxious, unpredictable, mostly large – full time projects for their new owners. I suspect we were being softened up, by showing us the alternatives to Abbie.

When she was brought out, Abbie’s greeting was polite but non-committal. She was a strange little thing, with her stumpy little bow legs. We were invited to take her for a stroll around the grounds, and she trotted along nicely enough, but we weren’t charmed until we came to the play area. She suddenly came alive, energetically chasing around after a ball.

It was decision time. Debbie and Alice were hesitant: but I reasoned that if we were going down the rescue route, what were we waiting for? Here was our dog. So we went back to the office and said we’d take her. A donation of £150 was required. We filled in the forms and agreed to pick her up the following week.

When we came to pick her up, the asking price had gone down to £100. I wonder whether, had we waited three weeks longer, they would have paid us instead. We attended a briefing about dog ownership in general, and the particular issues of rescue dogs, and a representative came to visit our house and garden to check that it would be a good home.

We didn’t think Abbie a suitable dog’s name: we knew of women in their twenties called Abbie, and wouldn’t want to be calling that in the park. After some discussion we settled on Betty, reasoning that most ladies with that name were probably pretty old, like Betty White.

Betty settled in well enough, and was house trained after just a couple of accidents. She suffered from kennel cough for a few days. This led Alice to invent the Betty voice: a nasal, blocked sound, where m’s came out as b’s, self-pitying and not overly bright, which seemed to fit our new dog’s personality well. We are often entertained by Alice’s running commentary of Betty’s innermost (but not especially profound) thoughts.

“If you loved me, you’d be throwing Piggy for me”

It became clear after a few days that Betty did not meet all the criteria we had laid down. Nowhere near, in fact, just the first three:

  • She is certainly small.
  • No-one would call her flouncy or decorative. Nor yappy, she has a good strong bark.
  • She is generally very relaxed around people, although she doesn’t like being loomed over, or petted near food.

However:

  • She is not good at all with other dogs.
  • There is no way those little legs equip her to join me on runs. She can also be a very slow walker – a half mile walk can take half an hour. If we hoped she would keep us fit with long, brisk walks, we certainly chose the wrong dog.
  • She loves to show off her big bum.

I had sometimes felt that Cracker, with his endless patience, good nature and noble bearing, was too good for us – or at least, for me. I have no such feelings about Betty, I fear she might be the dog I deserve.

Her first few months saw her slowly gaining confidence and becoming more affectionate, perhaps as she started to realise that this was home now. She enjoyed chasing her ball around the house, and we took her for walks and trips in the car. We were just getting her used to being left alone in the house for an hour or two when the Covid pandemic struck, and we were going nowhere, except to walk her. She must have thought our lives dull indeed. But our timing had been good: she provided us with much entertainment during those difficult months.

On her introductory visit to the vet, they reckoned her age older than five, and she does indeed frequently have the demeanour of a confused old lady: she can be behind the curve when there isn’t a curve. Although Betty’s past is a closed book, we have made some guesses. She’s fine around people, and will greet them nicely after her initial rage at the doorbell: from this we infer that she might have been neglected, but not actively mistreated by humans.

One possibly revealing incident came when Debbie went to use a portable toilet cabin while I stayed with Betty on the lead. She was frantic, desperate to be allowed to follow her mum into the cabin. We thought she might have been abandoned – possibly by travellers? – who shut her outside and drove off.

Alice didn’t think Betty would be impressed by my care when Debbie left to visit a friend for a couple of days. Note Piggy in her bag. (Alice Edwards August 2022)

We have been unable to make any progress on Betty’s behaviour with other dogs, and always keep her on a short lead when they are near. Jack Russell Terriers (as we believe she mostly is) can often be aggressive, and that might easily have been aggravated by something in her unknown past. Her attitude to other dogs is not tempered by any common sense: she will snarl at Labradors, Staffordshire Terriers and Alsatians alike, with no apparent thought of the likely outcome were she allowed to engage in battle.

We have been reduced to calling any dog she does not try to attack a “friend”. Her “friends” are often old, slow, half blind, small. This suggests that her aggression comes from a place of fear: it would be more convenient if her fear made her more submissive, but a terrier is a terrier. At least we know we are well protected from vicious Labrador puppies. She also fiercely defends us from low-flying light aircraft: she charges comically around our lawn in ungainly circles of impotent rage, hackles raised and back arched.

Betty sees off a light aircraft

This is actually quite effective: the pilot normally flies straight on, abandoning any thought of attacking our back garden. Other things Betty is definitely not ‘avin’ include the moon and traffic noise from the M25 a mile and a half away.

I think of her like a Scottish (or Irish) castle, relatively cheap to acquire, but horribly expensive to run. Her decision to snap at a bee one summer’s evening resulted in her face ballooning up horribly in reaction to the sting: of course it was outside the vet’s normal hours. Her emergency injection cost £300. My cousin Geraint, a sheep farmer, told us that gets you a bovine Caesarean section in North Wales. Betty also managed to scratch her eyeball on a thorn while chasing her ball outdoors, and tear a claw while chasing a ball indoors. Maybe we need to find a safer way to exercise her.

She also needed a costly eye operation. Should we have bought pet insurance? Well, we tried, but the insurance form – from the firm recommended by Dogs Trust – demanded so many details of her medical history which we couldn’t possibly have known, that we gave up.

But she did once earn her keep. One day we were awoken at 5:40am by a small thud and a scurrying sound. In the dim light I could make out a small dark shape against the cupboard door. I opened the curtain enough to see that it was a Glis glis.

Glis glis, or European edible dormouse, or European fat dormouse

We are periodically plagued with these creatures in the attic – the size of a rat, but not as nasty, with a bushy tail, like a small squirrel – sometimes known as the edible or fat dormouse. This fellow might have got in from the attic space through a small gap in the boarding behind the toilet.

Keeping one eye on it, I gingerly took a trip to the loo, and put some clothes and shoes on. We shut the door behind us and went downstairs, returning with an old pair of barbecue tongs, a pair of gardening gloves, a bucket full of water, and one slightly confused sawn-off Jack Russell terrier.

I re-entered the bedroom with Betty, saw the beast on the chest of drawers and chased it down with the tongs. Once it was on the floor, Betty was no longer confused. There was a brief chase, then silence – it had taken less than 30 seconds, and when I picked up the Glis glis with the tongs and held it under water, there were no bubbles. Although the species is still considered edible in Slovenia and Croatia, we resisted the temptation to sling it on the barbie. I threw the carcass out on the front lawn, and within ten minutes a Red Kite had cleared it up.

After once barking when we hadn’t heard the doorbell, this is the second useful thing Betty has done since she arrived. She was rewarded with extra breakfast, and new respect in the household.

My great grandfather was once described as a “street angel and a house devil”. Betty is the opposite: she behaves very well inside the home. She is very affectionate, and loves to sit on Debbie’s lap or my lap – sometimes in the very rocking chair where my grandmother Sallie would sit with her dachshund Tumbi in attendance – or to nuzzle against us on the sofa. It’s true that she’s even more affectionate as her four o’clock tea time approaches, but she also comes by afterwards to say thank you.

Cracker was a much better behaved dog, certainly in his relations with other dogs. But he was tolerant, and accepted that his place was in the kitchen at night time. Betty, however, is more assertive, and this has won her extra rights – she sleeps on the old sofa in our lounge, much warmer. She even comes into our bedroom sometimes, following us in as we bring the morning coffee.

For Christmas last year, we gave her a squeaky pig. Debbie predicted that Betty would tear it to pieces within half an hour, or failing that, she would lose interest in it after a couple of days. Six months later, I can tell you that neither prediction proved accurate, and Piggy still squeaks joyfully, loudly and persistently, every day. Yay!

Betty fetches her Piggy

And let me share some advice: when you’re taking your dog out for her late night walk, and you leave the bag untied because there might be a bit more to come, and you want to scratch your head, use your torch hand.

Who’s her favourite? Well, it’s a mum and dad thing. I’m her mate – she plays with me, cuddles and fusses over me. I get all the attention at her tea time. But when we come back after a longer absence, it’s Debbie who gets the first greeting and the bigger welcome – Betty knows who really looks after her. I usually get the slobber, Debbie gets the separation anxiety.

Half an hour after Debbie has driven off

And perhaps I’m imagining it, but I feel her love contains real gratitude: we don’t know much about her previous life, but maybe at some level she feels that we have indeed rescued her. She ain’t perfect, that’s for sure. But who is? Like Popeye, she very much am what she am. We love her very much.

Alice has put a number of videos of Betty on her Instagram page.

Let Me Take You Down…

“Screams from adoring teenagers and a “mini-riot” made up the fantastic reception BBC Radio 1 DJ Tony Blackburn received when opening the new Strawberry Fields boutique in Rickmansworth on Saturday morning.

Traffic through the town centre was delayed as the DJ made his way to Penn Place. Several times the police cordon around the shop front was broken as frantic teenagers peered closer into the glass window. A small child trampled in the rush and the decorative flowerbeds outside the shop crushed.”

Tempers frayed as limited numbers of fans were allowed into the shop to receive autographed photographs of this quietly spoken doctor’s son from Bournemouth, who himself had to be rescued by police in the scramble.”

He left the premises by a back entrance to make his way to a football engagement.”

(Watford Observer, October 11, 1968)

Tony Blackburn, screams, frantic teenagers, really? Yes really, this was the 1960s.

************

Four years earlier, there had been a gala opening of fourteen shops in Penn Place. The event had even been broadcast in the USA, because William Penn, the founder of Pennsylvania, had lived and married in Rickmansworth.

I was eight, and my family had just moved to Chorleywood. Mum and Dad both worked, and we would do our weekly shop in Rickmansworth on Saturday morning. At some point, the local grocers Anthony Jackson, just along from Penn Place, was replaced by that brash newcomer Tesco, to my grandma Sallie’s disapproval. I was appointed custodian of the Green Shield Stamps: it was my task to stick the vast roll of stamps Mum acquired at the till into the booklets.

It was quite a relief when they introduced a stamp representing ten of the little blighters.

Then on Saturday 5th October 1968, Strawberry Fields threw open its doors, shamelessly exploiting the huge stock of goodwill accruing to that marvellous song. I wasn’t a cool twelve year old, but I knew straight away it was the best shop in town. When I had finished getting my Saturday morning haircut, I would wait in there soaking up the music, looking longingly at the records and studying the latest charts on the board, while Mum was getting her perm from Mr Louvère, two doors away. My older brother Rob might have done the same as me, although about this time he more or less abandoned barbers’ shops.

I don’t remember actually buying many records there. Rob and I still shared a bedroom, and I was usually also happy to share his records, so I was introduced to bands like Led Zeppelin and King Crimson while I was quite young. We also possessed a reel-to-reel tape machine, which we used to record our favourites, in the early days from pirate radio and Alan Freeman’s Pick of the Pops, and later from Radio 1.

But there’s one record I certainly did buy there. About March 1970, I heard a languid, dreamy song one Sunday morning on Kenny Everett’s radio show. It was called The Prettiest Star by David Bowie, who had made his chart debut the previous year with Space Oddity. (Not to be confused with the brittle, metallic glam-rock version later to appear on Aladdin Sane.). It had a beautiful, wailing guitar part, played – although I didn’t know at the time – by Marc Bolan, soon to break through to huge success with Ride a White Swan.

Next Saturday morning I was in Strawberry Fields asking for the record. Despite the plugs from Kenny Everett, it hadn’t done much, and they didn’t stock it. But they could order it for me, and it would be there by Thursday. So I broke my bus journey home from school in Watford, and stopped off in Rickmansworth to pick it up. When I got home I ran upstairs and put it straight on the record player, with the stacking arm up to make it repeat play indefinitely. According to Wikipedia, it reportedly sold fewer than 800 copies, but I still think it’s beautiful.

Another record I bought there was much less cool, certainly at the time. I had heard Let’s Hang On by the Four Seasons on that radio show where Jimmy Savile (yes, him) played the charts from five, ten and fifteen years ago. The song ambushed me with its cheesy falsetto pop drive and conviction. This was years before the band’s 1970s disco reinvention, decades before Jersey Boys. I found in their imported oldies box and bought it. Rob nearly disowned me.

My other clear memory of Strawberry Fields again relates to David Bowie. In April 1973, Rob, a passionate fan, had pre-ordered Aladdin Sane , illegally discounted, from an upstart mail order advertiser in Melody Maker called Virgin Records.

Release day arrived, but not the LP. Luckily our cousin Jonathan was visiting: we all went to Strawberry Fields to listen to the new album – I can’t remember whether it was in a booth, or sharing headphones. The verdict was positive, and Rob prevailed upon Jonathan to buy a copy there and then – enabling us to listen repeatedly to Bowie’s new masterpiece until our cousin returned home. After that I think there were just a couple of days of anguish until Rob’s own copy arrived.

In 1974 our family moved to Chipperfield, and soon afterwards I left for university. We didn’t visit Strawberry Fields again. The shop moved down to the High Street. Online comments suggest that it lost its cutting edge: also the collapse of Resale Price Maintenance in the 1990s caused fierce price competition in the record industry from chains like W H Smith and Our Price. This made life very difficult for small independent record shops, and at some point unknown to me, years after it opened with such a bang, Strawberry Fields closed its doors with barely a whimper. So ended a tiny but magical chapter of Rickmansworth’s history.

P.S. (Oct 2022) I thought Tony Blackburn might be interested in this story so I emailed it to him at the BBC. And bless him, he sent me this. Aw…

25 best Edward Lear limericks

(This piece also appears in the Edward Lear Trail)

I’ve loved Edward Lear’s nonsense writings and limericks ever since my parents bought me The Nonsense Books of Edward Lear when I was nine. His limericks are sometimes disparaged for his refusal to introduce a new rhyme in the last line: W S Gilbert satirised this in There was an Old Man of St Bees. But this criticism misses the point: he is not aiming for wit, we are in the realm of nonsense. The repeated rhyme at the end underlines the pointlessness of the story – no progress is made, and we end up where we started.

I love them all, of course, but here are 25 of my favourites – in no particular order.

This was the first piece of Lear which won me over: I giggled at the absurd drawing (had this happened instantly, without warning?) and at the detailed listing of birds. Lear, of course, had started his career as an illustrator of animals and birds, and many of these early drawings seem to give the creatures strong, almost human personalities .

I love this fellow’s indignation. “Certainly not!” His interrogator, and we, should not have to ask the question, when he is so obviously a Moppsikon Floppsikon Bear. He does gallop, evidently.

We should congratulate this Old Man for being bored. Most people would be terrified.

Many Lear limericks involve a malign “they” who frown on eccentricity, and sometimes brutally punish it. This illustration shows the happier part of the story. It is natural to see Lear as the true protagonist here: the harmless eccentric who regarded himself as an outsider – despite his many close friendships.

Love this guy’s acceptance and stoicism.
This borders on satire: it could have been a W S Gilbert lyric mocking a Victorian cabinet minister.

I recognise a kindred spirit in the Old Person in the rhyme, with his carefully calibrated violence against fellow Minety dwellers – rocks, for example, would overstate the case, while tomatoes (or small apples) would barely get the job done. Of course, we’re left in the dark as to his motives, but he seems to be enjoying himself.

So intolerant. But so polite.

It’s that “they” again, this time acquainting the protagonist with an unwelcome fact rather than being outright malicious. Although they do seem to be enjoying his discomfort. Importantly the picture clarifies that although he is unhappy, he is not in immediate danger of drowning.

“Small”

Again, the humour springs from our uncertainty. Does the fellow have any reason to think someone will answer, or is he randomly ringing a bell in the middle of nowhere? Lockdown Lear hero John, in his world-beating re-enactment, has pointed out the discrepancy between the text and the illustration: the Old Man’s hair doesn’t appear to be white at all. Very careless, Mr Lear, you’ve made Nonsense of it. Note that the last line here repeats the rhyme from the second line, not the first, very adventurous.

Even in her grief, she is mindful of her husband’s high standing in Tartary.

D’you know, I’m not even sure there is a place called West Dumpet. Why, it’s almost as if Lear made it up, just because it rhymes with trumpet. This is unusual, most of his limerick locations are real places – as the Edward Lear trail has proved – many of which, the records confirm, Lear actually visited.

Lear again indulges his passion for drawing birds. What a sweet-natured, kindhearted Young Lady. She deserves all of her happiness.

Here’s “they” again. Perhaps they started knocking him about with evil intent, but seem quite happy to continue now he appears to be enjoying it. Is this a cheeky delve into niche erotic tastes? Biographers have concluded that Lear was a closet – probably celibate – homosexual. And in the nineteenth century it was generally wise to stay in the closet, Oscar.

Laconic indeed.

So is that “Hush!” to rhyme with push or “bush” to rhyme with rush? Often misquoted as “small bird in this bush” which of course makes Nonsense of the final line. Notable for the rare comic payoff. And “perceive”.

Tactful. But brutal.
Doubtful, this time, not laconic. But I think he might have a cousin in Wick. He looks rather like Stephen Fry.
We don’t know how many rabbits he’s eaten at this stage. Presumably not yet eighteen, as he’s still quite pink.
Note the trademark arms spread wide, expressing alarm.
Yes, it’s “they” again. Just enquiring this time.
More distressed arm-waving.
Who could resist rhyming Thermopylae with properly? Not Lear, obviously. There “they” go again, persecuting a harmless eccentric.

Once more, Lear leaves questions open. Was he escaping from aggression, persecution or boredom? What was his – or Lear’s – problem with Basing? But he’s so happy! He will need much presence of mind: he hasn’t bothered with any reins, nor made use of the stirrups.

Cracker

‘e was a good buooy!

It started with Pauli. We had booked a villa near Pisa in the summer of 2000, and we drove up a narrow winding road and reached a remote house. As we got out of the car with our two young daughters, still unsure whether we had reached the right place, a large and scruffy Alsatian bounded towards us. We braced and stood in front of the girls, but the dog’s charge turned out to be no more than a friendly welcome.

Pauli

The owner explained that Pauli lived at the house, but that he would happily take her away if we preferred, otherwise could we feed and look after her? By this time, the girls were excited about having a dog about the house, so we agreed. She was very well behaved and no trouble at all.

When I took a run along the track which led up through the woods, she followed me. At first I wasn’t happy having to be responsible for her, but soon realised it was she who was looking after me, and was very pleased to have her company when we encountered large dogs some distance from their owners. Pauli kept in range, and we reached a clearing with wide views: there in the distance was the beautiful old city with its famous leaning tower. Only one city in the world looks like that. I called her back and we returned to the house together.

A year or so later I was walking with Rachel and Alice when we were greeted by a friendly dog. We chatted to the owner, and the girls told her that we didn’t have a dog because Mum and Dad didn’t think it was a good idea. Their wistful, uncomplaining tone made me feel slightly hard-hearted, as was no doubt intended. Our happy experience with Pauli encouraged us, and dog ownership entered the agenda.

Oil painting by Alice Edwards

Debbie had grown up with an elderly black Labrador called Snudge, and that became our choice of breed. By the autumn of 2002 we were the proud owners of Tasarla Cracker, puppy of Tasarla Black Jewel Ginty, sired by Hatchfield Feargal, a Field Trial Champion. When we visited the breeders to choose one of the litter, Cracker ran over to say hello, wagging his tail and licking our hands: he had been adopted by the breeders’ daughter, who had carried him about. As a result he was super friendly, both to people and to other dogs. In his playful enthusiasm he tugged at my shoelace and managed to untie it. This was the dog for us.

Puppy in a bucket!

While I was at work, Debbie worked hard on training and socialising him, and his friendliness made him an ideal family dog, tolerant of the abundance of attention he received from excitable girls of eight and six years old. He had known only love and care, and he was gentle and trusting. But we hadn’t foreseen what a calming influence he would be in the household. Not that our lives had been particularly turbulent, but like almost any household with children, there would be the occasional noisy argument or shouting match. Cracker would slink off and hide, looking guilty and distressed, under the impression that he was in disgrace. The sight of his innocent suffering would often lower the temperature – or at least the volume – of the argument.

He loved charging around with other dogs, and once or twice escaped into next door’s garden, where he and Snips trashed some plants in their exuberant play. Another time I was impressed by the ability of dogs to moderate their play: when he was newly full grown he was charging round the garden of our holiday cottage in Dorset with three other dogs. The game must have been too boisterous, as one of them suddenly let out a yelp. The dogs didn’t stop, but immediately dialled down their speed and intensity.

His friendliness with other dogs did have a downside. He was confident of his irresistibility, and this confidence was often justified. (Don’t worry, pregnancy was not a risk). But he wasn’t always a gentleman, and didn’t always understand that when a bitch (or a dog) says no, they mean no.

And there were one or two gaps in his socialisation: flappy raincoats could set him off, and sometimes he would be indignant about people who had the temerity to take a walk unaccompanied by a dog, or to come round a corner unexpectedly. He resented our neighbours moving about their own back garden. Also he gave our daughters the opportunity to add the word coprophagia to their vocabulary at an early age. And to our embarrassment, he could sometimes exhibit racist tendencies. He certainly wasn’t perfect.

Debbie’s brother and his wife out in Athens owned Nelson, also a soft-hearted black Labrador. This meeting, billed as the resistible force vs the moveable object, sadly never took place.

He was polite about the house. Having grown up with Tumbi being so badly behaved at dinner time, I was determined that Cracker should not be fed scraps at the table. He can’t have been happy about the delicious meat smell drifting down from our plates: he would march off and glug great quantities of water, as if to say “who needs meat when you can have water?” Then, as plates were emptied and cutlery laid down, his hopeful black nose would slowly appear over the table.

In his early years, Cracker often accompanied me on my runs, after one Saturday when his big brown eyes stared up hopefully as I tied my running shoes. Why not? I thought. He had trouble matching my running speed, by which I mean he preferred either a second gear trot or a fifth gear sprint. So when he was off lead – he would dawdle, then zoom past, then dawdle again. Some nuances of running etiquette did escape him, typically when we encountered a chocolate Labrador bitch.

But there was such joy in seeing him bounding along beside me, ears flapping. He would go off on detours but I could always trust him to come back to me soon. Sometimes he would nuzzle my hand as we ran along, as if to say “Thank you, Dad.” Only once, on a cold and very wet February day, did I sense him staring at me asking the question: “Why are we doing this?” I didn’t have an answer for him.

Once I took him on an absurdly ambitious run along the Cornish Coast Path from Boscastle to Widemouth Bay – over twelve miles. There were thunderstorms about. I wildly underestimated how long this fiercely undulating run would take, and among the worry about whether we would ever arrive, the girls had already planned the Cracker Memorial, a giant bronze statue with his noble features looking out to sea from a prominent headland. Meanwhile I would be remembered by a cross made of a couple of lollipop sticks secured by a rubber band.

One time he found a squirrel in the middle of a field, unable to take its usual escape route up a tree. Cracker was upon it in no time, but was then stumped as to what he should do next. His killer instinct lagged some way behind his speed.

I noticed that after we started running I seemed to get more respect from him on walks and around the house, as if he now accepted me as a pack leader. Once he was even allowed to take part in a charity 10k trail race in Chalfont St Giles.

At one point in the race we came to what seemed an impossible stile for him to pass through: while I was fretting and scratching my head about what to do next, he got bored with my dithering, took a run-up and leapt clean over, landing safely on the other side.

Cracker tries Canicross

We had a go at Canicross (“Where your dog takes you for a run”) and we finished 5.6km in a respectable 27 minutes 52 seconds, sixth out of ten in our class. I’m pretty sure he could have kept up with a faster partner. We even appeared in the background on The One Show: they had been there filming a piece in which ex-athlete Colin Jackson was partnered with a humorously unsuitable dog.

Keeping a pet is often recommended as a means of reducing stress. It doesn’t always work like that. But sometimes after a frustrating day at work I would pass through the lounge on the way upstairs to change out of my work clothes, and Cracker would roll over for a tummy rub. I could feel my mood lighten at the chance to give – and to receive – a little love, with no trace of the demands which people make on each other. Although he could be overenthusiastic: whenever some task required my head to be near floor level, he would regard it as a slobbering opportunity.

He could be obedient to the point of stupidity: Alice found that if he was lying at the edge of the sofa, he would still obey the “Roll over!” command, even if meant that he tumbled to the floor. Repeatedly.

He loved the childrens’ summer parties: he would lead the kids round and round the garden in a frantic game of chase. Sometimes the girls would set up an obstacle course using play equipment, and he became quite proficient. He won the agility competition (and a medal) at the Chorleywood Village Day, because we had trained him to run through the play tunnel – all the other dogs failed at this hurdle. He almost retained his title the following year – under Rachel’s expert guidance he completed a superb round, but in the tiebreaker the judges inexplicably awarded first prize to a dog with an adult handler. Being a Labrador, however, his performance in the obedience competition (i.e. not eating the sausage) was less impressive.

By the time he was twelve, his health was failing: the cancer which had visited him since he was eighteen months old became overpowering. He grew lethargic, and could no longer accompany us on walks. Reluctantly we took him on his last visit to the vet, where the woman gently injected him with a sinister blue fluid. He hardly reacted, passing imperceptibly from sleep to something deeper. I know that stuff’s not for humans, but it did its work very peacefully. “He was the perfect family dog” I told the vet as I looked on him for the last time.

We remember him for his patient, joyful and loving personality. If a hug was happening, he always wanted to be part of it. We unanimously voted him the nicest member of our family. Sometimes he seemed too good for us: as if we just didn’t deserve him. Bless him.

Le gros commandant Whof Whof Whof: Part 2 – The Large Wynnstay Collider

Where were we? Ah yes, in Part 1 I was looking for evidence to support the theory that my mother’s side of the family is descended from the aristocratic Williams-Wynn family of Wynnstay Hall, Ruabon. The rumours centred around my great great grandmother Sarah Williams née Rowley (1828-1894): was she either the illegitimate daughter of Sir Watkin Williams-Wynn, 5th Baronet (b.1772), or the mistress of his son, Sir Watkin Williams-Wynn, 6th Baronet (b.1820)?

The official records state that Sarah Rowley’s father was coalminer John Rowley, and that her husband, and father to all her children, was coalminer John Williams. Although if I and a large chunk of my mother’s side of the family want to ignore the records and cling to our belief that we are high-born, we need only say “they would say that, wouldn’t they?” Surely the local aristocracy would be able to bribe and bully their way to keeping the truth of their involvement off the official records?

So my plan was to rebuild the family tree using the assumption that the 5th Baronet was Sarah’s father, so my great great great grandfather. Ancestry should then show me if I have any DNA matches with the legitimate descendants of the 5th Baronet. Many of the Williams-Wynn clan had large families in the 19th century, and using information from other carefully researched family trees, I have added about 600 of his deceased descendants. (Ancestry does not display details of living people on public trees: the 5th Baronet probably has a similar number of living descendants.). These additions increase the size of my tree by some 14%.

Let’s call it the Large Wynnstay Collider – an apparatus, if you will, to try to establish the existence of a tiny particle of Sir Watkin’s DNA in our family.

Ancestry.com is currently showing me 19,689 DNA matches of varying strength. If the 5th Baronet were indeed my great great great grandfather, then on average 1/32nd of my DNA will have come from him. So a similar proportion of my DNA matches – say 600 – will be descended from him, or from his ancestors. Many of those will have built a family tree on Ancestry – probably more than average, in view of the aristocracy’s enthusiasm for genealogy.

The website allows you to search to find which family trees of DNA matches contain a specified surname: for example, if I search the names Edwards, Jones or Williams there are hundreds, only some of which will be from my family. Not surprising, as it they are such common names. More useful, then, to search for some of my ancestors’ more unusual surnames from the 5th Baronet’s time. Here is the frequency with which these rarer names occur in the trees of my DNA matches:

  • Grime – 16
  • Lund – 26
  • Mather – 59
  • McSorley – 6
  • Shelmerdine – 11

For comparison, how many Williams-Wynns did my search find? One, and that turned out to be a Wynn-Williams, born in 1903, taking Wynn from their mother and Williams from their father – so nothing to do with Sir Watkin. None, then.

The official records state that Sarah Rowley’s father was John Rowley, and that her husband was John Williams. A thorough trawl through the DNA pond has produced nothing to contradict or challenge those records.

The Williams-Wynn story comes from my mother’s family, so my father Aelwyn was a dispassionate, if wry observer. Mum used to outsource genealogy enquiries to him, and in a letter to Mum’s cousin Maureen in 1992, Aelwyn wrote:

“According to to Vida (Sarah Rowley’s granddaughter) – and it may all be a figment of her lively imagination – she was the mistress of Sir Watkin Williams-Wynn of Wynnstay Hall… A curious circumstance which tends to support Vida’s story is that Sarah was the only working-class person in the village of Cefn who could read and write, and she lived to the end of her days rent-free on the Wynnstay estate.”

My Great Aunt Vida

My genealogy research confirms Vida’s “lively” imagination. Her father, John Cooper, worked as a brickmaker, terracotta finisher, and a tilemaker. He also played in a brass band called the Besses o’ th’ Barn Band. This last detail was enough reason for Vida to describe her father’s profession as “Professor of Music” on her marriage record.

I have tried to find records which might confirm Sarah’s rent free status, or provide a reason why she might have received favours. One suggestion was that she was being supported as the widow of a coalminer who died working on the estate. I’ve been unable to find her husband’s date of death, but his daughter Edith, born in 1866, was said not to remember him, which suggests he died in his early forties. Sarah was a couple of years younger than him. It seems unlikely that she learned to read and write only at the age of forty, as a result of a special favour from the Wynnstay estate. A researcher named Elissa had some interesting suggestions as to why Sarah might have been allowed to live rent free:

“If Sarah only lived rent free after John’s death it is worth considering whether she was taken on as a charity case by the family in her widowhood. Although almost certainly unprovable (unless a letter survives) it could also be a connection to a female member of the Wynn family which brought their favour – perhaps she had previously worked there as you suppose and following her widowhood an old employer took pity on her. Maybe she had done the family a favour or won their friendship by helping at the birth of a child. It is all complete supposition but it is worth considering the less obvious reasons.”

I initiated a search for the Wynnstay Hall rental records, to try to confirm whether Sarah Williams indeed lived rent-free, and if any reason was given. In 1858 Wynnstay Hall was destroyed by fire, presumably taking the rent records with it, but surviving papers are stored at the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth. I asked a researcher called Graham to see if he could find rent records for Newbridge, where Sarah lived:

“I have now had a chance to search through the rentals in the Wynnstay archive at the National Library of Wales – massive, heavy volumes they were too! It would seem that Newbridge was situated within the parish of Wrexham which straddled parts of Flintshire and Denbighshire. I have looked through the rentals at various points during the period which you specify to search for tenants of the Williams-Wynne family in Wrexham, but, unfortunately, failed to locate a single reference to either a Sarah Williams or to Deeside Cottages. Indeed, there would seem to have been very few properties owned by the estate within Wrexham.”

So I’ve not been able to confirm Sarah’s rent-free status, or find any reason why it might have been. And perhaps Sarah was simply a bright girl, and someone took her under their wing to help her education.

Of course, it’s very difficult to prove a negative. But imagine watching Loch Ness continuously for a hundred years, above and below water, and seeing nothing. You’d be pretty confident there was no monster living there. Similarly, having failed to find a single trace of Williams-Wynn DNA in me, I am now fairly certain that my family is not descended from the noble Williams-Wynns, and believe the idea might have come, as Dad suggested, from my Great Aunt Vida’s “lively” imagination. I’ll never be King of Wales. I’m sorry if that disappoints any of my maternal cousins. But we can take just as much pride in our ancestors being coalminers, brickmakers and seamstresses.

There will be many genuine, legitimate descendants of the Williams-Wynn family out there. So, if any of you happen to read this, could you do me a favour? Would you mind awfully taking a DNA test for me, to give a definitive answer? I’ll pay for it, and I promise I won’t try to claim your castle.

(insert random number here) best ever cartoons

I’ve never been able to draw, although I have written a few cartoon gags. Mostly I just see them and enjoy them. Here, in no particular order, are some of my favourites.

When I saw the Will McPhail cartoon below in the New Yorker, our daughter Alice was halfway through her art degree. The career prospects for art graduates being what they are, I could envisage a similar conversation with her a few years ahead. Note the furious father and the gently concerned mother. Perhaps it was inspired by the reaction the cartoonist received when he announced his intended career to his parents.

Tony Husband is a superb cartoonist, and his The Yobs strip has appeared in Private Eye for over thirty years. His cartoons often feature amiable, ordinary chinless characters crashing through social norms:

He has also written Take Care, Son, an educational and heartbreaking cartoon book telling the story of his father’s dementia. My favourite of his gag cartoons is this gem: I like to speculate on the nature of the customer’s dispute.

Richard Jolley signs his cartoons RGJ. This classic from 2014 is beautifully simple:

My Forgotten Moments in Music History partner Will Dawbarn, professionally known as Wilbur, has been drawing outstanding gag cartoons for years. This is one of his best:

Wilbur can pack a political punch, as with his environmentally themed Eco Chamber series in Private Eye, or this recent cartoon:

Here is a link to a brilliant Ray Lowry cartoon from Punch in 1987 which will strike a chord with anyone who has paid a heavy price for corporate incompetence and seen more senior and blameworthy employees escape unscathed.

Another powerful comment on the realities of corporate life – this time from a feminist angle – comes in this 1988 Punch cartoon by Riana Duncan, which unfortunately hasn’t dated at all:

Jeremy Banks has been gracing the pages of the Financial Times with his pocket cartoons since 1989, using the name Banx. His jokes come from the political left, and it reflects well on the FT that it has presented his sometimes uncomfortable wit to its well-heeled readers for over three decades. Banx has a gift for nailing stupidity and hypocrisy with the simplest of jokes.

Many of his drawings have featured the same middle aged couple in a period living room – they didn’t get a flat-screen telly until about 2014. Another common framing for his jokes is the wife explaining her husband’s topical but eccentric behaviour to a friend. A cynical reader might think that Banx could get away with recycling some of his artwork. But his genius is the perfection of the caption, like this one published in June 2016 after the Brexit vote:

Perhaps the most successful British cartoonist is Matt, the pen name of Matt Pritchett. He has been the resident cartoonist at the Daily Telegraph since the late 1980s, and his jokes are always good-humoured and funny. His first cartoon for the Telegraph was the day after the newspaper was printed with the wrong date, and the editor requested a cartoon to accompany the front page apology.

He can find a cracking joke every working day of his life.

Here’s another brilliant New Yorker cartoon, this one by Charles Barsotti – in case you ever wondered how Fusilli is regarded by his pasta buddies:

Let’s finish on an absolute classic: this one by Paul Crum, which appeared in Punch in 1937. Not everyone gets it.