At the births of our daughters I realised that things can be commonplace and epic at the same time. And sometimes ordinary people feel they are – involuntarily – living a tiny piece of history. I remember on the afternoon of the 7/7 attacks in London in 2005, we were told that we could close our business early and go home, as there was no public transport in central London.
I declined the offer: I was unwilling to concede anything to the terrorists. My tiny act of defiance was to keep working as normal. To get my train home I had to walk from the City to Marylebone Station – about three and a half miles – it seems a long way through London, but we’d think little of it in the countryside. As I battled along the crowded pavements with my fellow commuters, there was – despite the horrific events of the day – an undoubted buzz. Something different, something important had happened, and we were all part of it.
In the same way, Coronavirus has thrust us all into history. When Boris Johnson spoke on 23rd March last year to announce the first lockdown, struggling to project gravitas in place of his customary jocularity, our daughter Alice remarked that she felt this was something she would remember for the rest of our life.
And so it felt. It didn’t rank with Chamberlain’s sombre, regretful speech announcing war with Germany, or with Churchill’s “fight them on the beaches”. But, for most of my generally fortunate boomer generation, the Coronavirus pandemic is without doubt the global event that has most impacted us during our lifetimes.
Eleven months after the first UK lockdown was announced, over 120,000 people have died in this country, and over 2,500,000 globally – although these figures probably understate the toll. Many died without being able to see their loved ones. Many more have been seriously ill, some of whom will suffer long term health issues as a result.
Children have suffered huge disruption to their education and social development. Parents have struggled to juggle childcare, home schooling and working from home. Many have lost their jobs, especially in the hospitality and retail industries, and suffered financial hardship. Young professionals have had to pause their social lives. Health and frontline workers have worked tirelessly, at great personal risk, frequently under great stress. Old people have suffered loneliness, isolated from sons, daughters and grandchildren. Every life has been changed.
As a relatively young retired couple, we have thankfully (so far) been at the shallow end of the problem pool. Like everyone else we’ve had to cancel or postpone plans for outings and holidays, but had no very aged relatives to worry about, and no impact on our finances. But it’s been stressful at times, and frustrating to watch a year of our active retirement slipping by with our activities so constrained.
So when on the same day Alice (currently living at home) and I both became eligible to receive our vaccinations, we were quite excited. She qualified for an early vaccination because she suffers from Type 1 Diabetes, while I learned from a Facebook post that 64-year olds could now get a jab, when I had thought you still needed to be 65 to qualify. We were able to book appointments at Watford Town Hall within ten minutes of each other for the next day, and follow-up appointments nearly three months later.
We arrived at the temporary structure on the site, and were shown where to go by cheerful volunteers. “Follow that lady” I was told. “That’s my daughter” I said. “Follow that lovely lady” she corrected. The atmosphere was positive and cheerful, almost celebratory: the punters arriving for their vaccinations were very glad to be there, and the medical staff and volunteers – working non-stop – no doubt felt truly appreciated. After a short wait I was answering questions about my health and being told about the vaccine. At one point I had difficulty hearing what the nurse was saying, because at the next table Alice was making them laugh so much telling the story of her guava allergy.
Soon we were Oxford/AstraZeneca jabbed. We were asked to wait for a few minutes before leaving in case we developed an allergic reaction, or in case the injection caused a problem in my arm which might impede driving. Soon we were home, jab done.
Apparently the Covid vaccines are more than usually “reactogenic“. That is a posh medical word meaning it’s more likely to make you feel like crap. And indeed, we both felt achy and shivery for a while, but deemed it a small price to pay for protection against a lethal illness. Perversely, I felt some reassurance from the side effects: the injection must have had some effect.
There are many things wrong with Britain. But there was a moment in the vaccination centre when I took in the pop-up building, the bustling efficient staff, the smiling volunteers – an enormous logistical challenge, met so quickly and under such pressure. We grateful customers taking, we hoped, a vital step back to freedom. And I thought this is the country I want to live in.
This could, of course, turn out to be a false dawn. Perhaps the vaccination will prove ineffective against new Covid strains, and we’ll have to stay under lockdown, or return to it. There may be more bumps on the road to recovery. But as we stepped outside and felt a little warmth in the late February sun, it certainly started to feel like spring.
Why do I sometimes remember things that no-one else does? Do I make these memories up?
When, in January last year, I wrote Teacher’s Pet about my time at Watford Field Junior School, and put the article on a local Facebook group, a former fellow pupil called Andy Skinner commented on the article, and we began a conversation.
Something then stirred in my memory: something to do with Skinner, a party, my brother Rob, and a Motown single. Eventually it took shape. In about 1970, we – well, Rob – had owned a copy ofthe sublimeTracks of My Tears, by Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, and then he didn’t.
Lamenting its absence from the collection of singles in his collection he had blamed “Skinner” – we used surnames a lot at school, there were too many Johns and Richards – a boy in the year between us. As I recall, Rob had been at a party some time in the early 1970s, and he told me that Andy Skinner had “borrowed” the record to tape it. (Home Taping had already started Killing Music.)
In my mind this was tentatively associated with another Motown single of lesser status – although still a decent single – that we had in the pile, Do What You Gotta Do by the Four Tops, which peaked outside the top ten in 1969. My recollection was that it was a temporary swap which had become an indefinite one, as Rob and Andy’s paths hadn’t crossed again – at least not when they were carrying these Motown hits. In view of the difference in quality of the two records we felt somewhat cheated.
And here I was, unexpectedly in touch with Andy, someone I remembered from school, but only vaguely, as is the way with kids in a different year. So in a message to him I wrote, tongue in cheek, that Rob would like his copy of Tracks of My Tears back.
Perhaps unsurprisingly after so much time had elapsed, Andy replied that he had no memory of ‘blagging’ the record, nor did he remember Rob from school, and doubted if he owned the record. But when I tentatively suggested that if he found it, he might return it out of the blue to Rob, it appealed to his sense of humour and he readily agreed.
To Andy’s surprise, he did find Tracks of My Tears when he searched in his loft, so he dispatched it to Rob’s address with exactly the message you would send when returning something after 49 years.
I pictured Andy, in the Spotify era, wiring his cassette recorder up to the hi-fi like we all used to. I waited for the joke to find its mark, and in January 2020 Rob received the record and Andy’s note in the post. Rob and I have pranked each other in the past, so I wasn’t surprised that he sensed my hand in this and messaged me “This arrived today, without any address or any other clues. Don’t suppose it rings any bells with you?” I took that as a coded accusation. Well, really.
I tried to nudge his memory by sharing initially ‘vague’ recollections which soon became more specific, but in vain. He knew nothing about it, and the joke had fallen flat. I was prepared to leave it at that, and leave a bit of mystery in his life. But I wrote a follow-up article to Teacher’s Pet which mentioned Andy, and the game was up. Rob wrote “The Andy Skinner you wrote about. He wouldn’t be the same Andy Skinner that mysteriously returned the Tracks of My Tears single to me a couple of weeks ago, would he?” So: no joke, no mystery. Ah well.
So, did I make the whole thing up? Did I spoof someone I barely remember from school into going up to his loft, locating a vintage 45 and randomly sending it to my brother? If so I’m actually quite proud. I understand that Picasso’s Girl With a Dove is on anonymous loan to the Courtauld Institute of Art in London. I might ask to have it back, if they don’t know where they got it from.
Perhaps I just remember something they don’t, even though I wasn’t directly involved: where music is involved my memory seems to be sharper. Or possibly, I remember the incident accurately, but have pinned it on the wrong guy. But it seems to be corroborated by Andy finding Tracks of My Tears when he didn’t think he owned it: also to some extent by the confirmed presence of Do What You Gotta Do in Rob’s collection – although Rob doesn’t recall how he acquired it, and Andy doesn’t recall ever owning it, so it hasn’t made a journey in the opposite direction. Most people are just too busy living their life to mentally archive it as they go.
But did you spot that line of marker just under the sleeve window? Perhaps there is writing behind that which might shed light on the mystery. I must ask Rob to take a look.
Well I’ve done all the work, but the call hasn’t come yet. I diligently prepared a list of my pet hates – the small things that really annoy me, you’re not allowed to say Covid, Donald Trump or cancer – and they’re ready to go into Room 101, in the programme where guests try to persuade the host to consign their hates to oblivion. The name is inspired by the torture room in George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four which reputedly contained “the worst thing in the world”.
The BBC named the series ironically: Orwell was inspired by a meeting room in Broadcasting House where he had to sit through meetings he found extremely tedious. I’ve given up waiting, so I’m going to share my list. When they call me, I’ll have to think up some new ones.
Terms and conditions apply
Commercial radio boasts to potential advertisers that it has a captive audience, usually busy driving, cooking, doing something requiring concentration which makes them less likely to switch channels or turn the radio off. Perhaps that used to be me, but now I have acquired the energy and resolve to cut the radio off as soon as the adverts come on. The disclaimers made this leap possible.
So I would turn on the radio hoping for some decent music, and just when I thought the adverts had run their course…
Standard UK minutes and texts. Prices may change. Rolling monthly contract. New customers in low-cost areas only. Traffic prioritisation applies. Offer ends 14th of March. Terms apply. See Plus.net/mobile.
All of this delivered at a frantic pace – often tweaked electronically to make it faster. Sometimes delivered breathlessly as if it’s all a terribly funny joke. In some cases advertisers have been sanctioned by the Advertising Standards Authority for their disclaimers being read out inaudibly fast. Shut up, just shut up!
Me and Alan Bennett, we’re afraid of Virginia Woolf
When my wife told me that she had started reading To the Lighthouse but never finished it, my competitive spirit was awakened, and I set to work. I soon began to understand why she found finishing the damned book as difficult as the characters inside found it to reach the damned Lighthouse. Woolf doesn’t go out of her way to be readable: she’s very writerly, the Meryl Streep of literature, if you like. Take a look at this single sentence:
She had in mind at the moment, rich and poor, high and low; the great in birth receiving from her, half grudging, some respect, for had she not in her veins the blood of that very noble, if slightly mythical, Italian house, whose daughters, scattered about English drawing-rooms in the nineteenth century, had lisped so charmingly, had stormed so wildly, and all her wit and her bearing and her temper came from them, and not from the sluggish English, or the cold Scotch; but more profoundly, she ruminated the other problem, of rich and poor, and the things she saw with her own eyes, weekly, daily, here or in London, when she visited this widow, or that struggling wife in person with a bag on her arm, and a note-book and pencil with which she wrote down in columns carefully ruled for the purpose wages and spendings, employment and unemployment, in the hope that thus she would cease to be a private woman whose charity was half a sop to her own indignation, half a relief to her own curiosity, and become what with her untrained mind she greatly admired, an investigator, elucidating the social problem.
Note how the only help you get here is a couple of semicolons, one of which Woolf teasingly places in the first line, before any confusion has had time to arise. I ploughed doggedly on to the end of the sentence, and the book. And indeed my wife has also now reached that wretched Lighthouse.
But difficult though she can be, Woolf can leave her readers with indelible phrases and ideas, like the marvellous passage from the same book describing the feeling we experience when we reach the limit of our intellectual journey: in this case Mr Ramsay – sure of Q – struggles to reach R:
…he was a failure – that R was beyond him. He would never reach R. On to R, once more. R—
Another idea has stayed in my memory:
Mrs. Ramsay saying, “Life stand still here”; Mrs. Ramsay making of the moment something permanent… —this was of the nature of a revelation. In the midst of chaos there was shape; this eternal passing and flowing (she looked at the clouds going and the leaves shaking) was struck into stability. Life stand still here, Mrs. Ramsay said.
This passage has sometimes come back to me when contemplating a scene, typically at a family gathering in summer, suddenly knowing that the moment will be imprinted on my memory forever, like a photograph. So, maddening though she may be, perhaps I have too much respect for Virginia Woolf to put her into Room 101.
Rhubarb rhubarb rhubarb
School dinners are character building. Having to finish my lumpy mashed potato, cold custard, sour lettuce and watercress (or face the wrath of the dinner lady) taught me to tolerate most food even if I didn’t enjoy it, which helped me survive my bachelor days. But I drew the line at rhubarb. At primary school, it seemed to be the default pudding, we got it at least once a week. I hated it, and it wasn’t just the school dinner approximation – I have tried “high quality” rhubarb desserts occasionally since, with no more enjoyment.
“You have to add loads of sugar” they say. Quite. It’s only the sugar that makes it remotely palatable: historically it was more often used as a medicine, and only became a food in the 18th century when sugar became more affordable.
I had an auntie of whom I was very fond, who was an excellent cook. She grew rhubarb in her garden, and three times in a row when I visited, she served up her famous crumble. She thought me a very fussy eater. I’m really not. I just don’t like rhubarb.
It all started so promisingly for the Electric Light Orchestra. I had been a big fan of the Move, and keenly anticipated Roy Wood’s new project, which aimed to “pick up where the Beatles left off”, using classical instruments to play rock music. Their first single, 10538 Overture was distinctive and atmospheric. Soon after, Roy Wood left and Jeff Lynne took charge.
The Beatles, enabled by George Martin’s musical background, had indeed used classical instruments very effectively in their records from Yesterday through to Eleanor Rigby and I am the Walrus. But these were exceptional songs, and the Beatles “left off” for a good reason – they had already fully explored the possibilities of using orchestral instruments in a pop and rock setting.
And although ELO achieved a tolerably Beatle-ish sound, I always found their songs predictable and uninteresting, and suspected that their huge popularity owed more to nostalgia for the Beatles’ 60s heyday than to any real quality. My heart sinks whenever their ploddy lethargic chug comes on the radio.
And the worst is Mr Blue Sky. Thematically identical to Here Comes the Sun, DJs think it’s clever to play it on a sunny day. According to Dominic King on the BBC, the song features “the most freakatastic vocoder since Sparky’s Magic Piano” – and this is a good thing? This limp and self-regarding twaddle (thanks for that phrase Andrew) takes up five minutes and six seconds of your life. Then just when you think your suffering might be over, the song awards itself a self-congratulatory coda, topped off a vocoder finale, the cherry on this queasy cake. Eew.
Mock the weak
Michael Palin is rarely wrong, and usually polite. But in Staged, a 2021 scripted mock-Zoom programme featuring David Tennant and Michael Sheen, Palin appears in cameo, gushing about his love of Staged on camera but once “off-air” immediately challenges Sheen’s assertion that “improvised comedy has produced a lot of good things.” “Has it?” he responds bluntly, saying that he doesn’t find improvisation very funny – and that the Pythons always worked hard on their scripts. (Except Graham Chapman, allegedly).
This was scripted comedy, where the humour came from Tennant and Sheen’s disappointment at being brutally cut down by one of their heroes. And of course Palin can act. But perhaps he wasn’t having to: he appeared to show genuine irritation about the trend towards improvisation. The Monty Python team did indeed take their comedy very seriously, writing in teams, assembling for lively and sometimes difficult script meetings where some ideas were rejected and others refined, until they had a programme they thought fit to put in front of the public.
All this is time consuming and expensive. No wonder TV schedulers prefer improv: just give a couple of drinks to a handful of moderately amusing people, shove them in a studio for a few hours, and keep the best bits. Voila, you’ve got a show.
John Cleese once remarked that it took him a day to write five minutes of comedy, but it took Peter Cook five minutes. Peter Cook was an improv genius, but it wouldn’t work if he tried to wing it live on TV: his funniest sketches may have started off the cuff, but they were refined, edited and rehearsed before being aired.
Perhaps the problem is that we know it’s a recording – if it were truly live, there would be a sense of danger – we would be more impressed with their speed and spontaneity. But knowing that it can be edited and cleaned up post-recording gives it the sterile safety of a circus viewed on TV. And the knowledge that the comics are able to prepare their material before the show provides another jeopardy-sapping safety net.
Improv comedy shows – on TV at least – make me feel like the only sober person at a loud party, assailed by competitive and aggressive – sometimes bullying – banter. They’re cheap, they’re lazy, and they’re fake.
Harry Kane to score next goal 6/1
Hard man actor Ray Winstone can often be seen on TV exhorting us, in his manly way, to wager with Bet365, typically during half time at football matches, when viewers might be tempted to add spice to a dull game in which they have no emotional investment. What kind of a man are you, he appears to be saying, if you won’t make a bet on how many corners West Bromwich Albion will be awarded in the big match against Fulham? More than fifty years after the Stones sang “he can’t be a man ’cause he doesn’t smoke the same cigarettes as me” they’re still trying to pull this crap on us.
Advertisers will advertise, of course. But in the UK TV cigarette adverts were banned from 1965, and tobacco and cigar adverts were banned from 1991. Alcoholic drinks have very tight restrictions on TV advertising. Just like tobacco and alcohol, gambling ruins lives – sometimes not only those of the gamblers, but their families’ lives too.
That such aggressive and high profile TV advertising is still allowed in 2021 for an unambiguously harmful industry is testament to the tenacity, efficacy and probably the generosity of the gambling lobby. It stinks.
A loose affiliation of millionaires and billionaires and baby
Twenty or thirty years ago, conspiracy theories were the preserve of a few harmless eccentrics on the fringes of society. Not any more: encouraged by the internet and an unhinged US president, they’ve gone mainstream. A majority of Trump voters believe their man was cheated by a liberal/Democrat conspiracy…many people believe Coronavirus was invented by a wealthy elite to oppress the population…people use the abbreviation MSM for mainstream media as if the BBC, the Daily Mail, the Sun, the Guardian and the Financial Times were homogeneous, all part of the same plot.
How strange, how baffling, how sad that the miracle of the internet, which puts so much of the world’s knowledge and wisdom in our pockets, has led us to this. This is an echo of an earlier period of history when the increasing affordability of printing, besides spreading knowledge and wisdom, led to an explosion of scurrilous pamphlets. It has never been easier to find information. But it has also never been easier to find lies, or for idiots and charlatans to amplify their voices. The curation of social media leads us into echo chambers which confirm and strengthen our opinions, causing ever sharper divisions in political discourse.
Why do these bizarre notions have such wide currency? The traditional image of a conspiracy theorist is of a sad, lonely, underwashed young man, looking for reasons to justify his lack of success. But now these ideas are put forward by clean, intelligent looking people with every appearance of respectability, and have gained hugely in popularity. Time will tell whether we are witnessing a temporary mania or a permanent structural shift away from evidence, truth and science towards superstition and belief – a return to an intellectual dark age. If it’s the latter, the outlook is bleak.
Roadworks on the A9 north of Inverness
Travel news next on BBC Radio 2! Yay. We have satnavs and Google Maps to give us up-to-the-moment information on the traffic ahead of us on the journeys we are making. Who in London is concerned about the Exeter by-pass, who in Manchester about the Hanger Lane gyratory? Beeb, please, stop boring us with irrelevant information and take a step into the 21st century.
Sorry about that, I feel better now. Entering month eleven of lockdown we all need a bit of a moan about something. Better splurge it out online than shout at the lady in the Co-op, I guess.
You can learn a lot from the way someone sneezes. When I joined a stockbroking startup in the 1990s, there was a quiet, highly competent nineteen year old called Sarah working in our back office. We soon noticed that if we needed something done, she would do it quickly and correctly, and we’d never have to ask twice. She was modest, almost meek in her demeanour. But she had a huge sneeze, sudden, high pitched and proud, which could be heard from distant offices.
Soon her diligence and ability were recognised, and she was promoted to an extremely well rewarded position as finance director while still very young. I didn’t recognise it at the time, but that mighty sneeze spoke of appetite and ambition, and marked her for greatness.
Our personal sneezing sound is typically set during youth, and everyone has their own signature style. Sneezes come in many varieties: the Splat, the Shout, the Kitten, the Mouse, the Squib, the Cannon… there is surely scope for academic research into how sneezing style might relate to personality. According to Doctor Gordon Siegel, a Chicago otolaryngologist, although sneezing is an involuntary part of the body’s defences, we can exercise a degree of control over the sound that comes out: Siegel cites an acquaintance who has successfully engineered his sneezes to come out as ‘horseshit!’
And there was F. Despite having a perfectly good name like Ian – ok, very like Ian – he preferred to be known by the name of a twentieth century European dictator. He enjoyed leading the team, and tried to play up the blokey side of his character, but was handicapped in this by his preference for eating chocolate bars over drinking in the pub. F would never sneeze in singles, but in bursts, and when this was happening he would intersperse his sternutation with expletives of increasing strength: Achoo! Bugger. Achoo! Bloody hell. Achoo! Oh fuck. This performance was designed to suggest a brave commander leading his troops onward into battle, despite suffering difficulties under which a lesser man would have buckled.
When Dad sneezed, he would pump his arm vigorously across his chest, as if the rest of his body was offering his nose moral support. A few years ago I took to doing this myself in half-mocking, affectionate tribute, but it’s now become just another habit. Also, I shout, AH-HOO! along with the sneeze, to make sure I’m the centre of attention, and that everyone else in the room knows what I’m going through. This moment belongs to me. And that’s not…excuse me…horseshit!
Gwerfyl looked out from the Eagles pub where we having dinner, where five people I didn’t recognise were seated at a table.
“Three of those people are your relatives”. That should have surprised me, but it didn’t. After all, this was Llanuwchllyn.
When my father died in 2015, it fell to me to sort out his papers. It wasn’t an especially onerous task: Dad was very organised, and everything was carefully filed. Once I had bundled up anything financial or legal for the solicitor, I was left with three envelopes containing information about the family: one for each of Dad’s parents, and one for Mum’s mother. Dad hadn’t created a family tree himself, but he had kept documents and letters from family members who had sought or provided information. The absence of an envelope for Mum’s father was, I think, only because there had been no correspondence from this quarter of the family.
I kept the envelopes safe, but thought no more of it until February 2017, when I sustained a heel injury trying to run further than I should. I thought that uploading the information I had inherited would make an interesting replacement for running as a winter diversion. But once I had signed up to Ancestry and started to add the data, momentum took me straight past that point, and into new researches as the website pointed me towards ancestors, great-uncles, great-aunties and cousins I had never known about.
I knew all four of my grandparents, and each had been strongly associated with a particular place. Nain (Dad’s mother) came from the Toxteth area of Liverpool. Some of Mum’s mother Sallie’s family can still be found around the Chirk and Wrexham area of north Wales where Sallie grew up, and Mum’s father Jack grew up and lived most of his life in Wallasey on the Wirral.
But it was my father’s father, Bob Edwards (or Taid as I knew him), whose extended family is still most closely connected to his childhood home. He was born on his father Evan’s farm Pantclyd, in Llanuwchllyn, North Wales, into a family which had farmed the area for generations. He was the fourth child of the nine who survived infancy.
Of course, this meant that my father had many cousins, and I have many second cousins descended from my great grandparents. And because Llanuwchllyn is a farming community, and the land is owned by family members, many still live in the area. But my Dad didn’t generally make much effort to keep in touch with his Welsh family, perhaps because he didn’t speak the language fluently.
Pantclyd held a fascination for me, no doubt because the house in Dolgellau where our family stayed with Nain and Taid when I was a boy was also called Pantclyd, renamed by Taid presumably in tribute to his childhood home. When I found out from a correspondent on Ancestry that an Edwards – Eiddon Edwards – was living in Pantclyd (Llanuwchllyn) my curiosity was aroused. Was the house and farm where my grandfather was born in 1883 still in the family, nearly 140 years later?
So I wrote an old-fashioned paper letter to Pantclyd, and within a couple of days Eiddon had emailed back confirming that he was indeed my second cousin. Pantclyd had come to him through his grandfather Llewelyn and his parents Idris and Ann. When he mentioned that his brother Geraint owned a couple of holiday cottages which he rented out, I resolved to make the trip to visit the Land of My Fathers.
I contacted Geraint, and booked up a week in September – he was kind enough to give us mates’ rates. During the Coronavirus lockdown, it looked doubtful whether the trip could still take place, so we were grateful to arrive at Talybont.
Prominent from the main road past Llanuwchllyn as we arrived was the statue of Sir Owen Morgan Edwards and his son Sir Ifan ab Owen Edwards. Sir Owen was my great grandfather Evan’s second cousin. It was the first time I’d seen any relatives honoured with a statue.
Sir Owen and his son Ifan were both champions of the Welsh language. Owen was an academic, and published many books and magazines promoting Welsh poets and writers. He also became a wealthy man, leaving an estate of £17,500 – a tidy sum in 1920. Ifan set up Urdd Gobaith Cymru (the Welsh League of Youth) which among other things, organises the Youth Eisteddfod.
I couldn’t go to Llanuwchllyn without visiting the grave of my great grandparents Evan and Elin Edwards, buried along with their son Thomas.
We were delighted to have been invited to Pantclyd, where we enjoyed a lovely lunch with Eiddon, his wife Heledd and their two young sons. Besides being my taid’s birthplace, two much sadder stories attached to Pantclyd. Two of Taid’s brothers died young: my namesake and great uncle Richard Edwards tragically drowned there in 1905 at the age of 20.
Eiddon took me on a tour of the grounds, and showed me the pool under a waterfall – perhaps where this happened.
Taid’s oldest brother Evan John also died young, in a shooting accident, just three years later at the age of 30.
Pantclyd is now a happy family home after being comprehensively renovated and extended in recent years by Eiddon, a builder by trade.
An undoubted highlight of the trip was visiting my dad’s favourite cousin Arthur Jones with his daughter Gwerfyl for morning coffee. Arthur is now a lively 98, full of stories and laughter. He pings out emails from his iPad like a young ‘un, and a couple of hours before we arrived he sent me a Facebook friend request.
Arthur fought in the Battle of Normandy with the Welsh Guards, arriving a few days (“Quite soon enough, thank you!”) after D-Day. He was a tank driver and fitter: he explained how his job was to drive the one at the rear: if a tank broke down, a fitter would have to get out of the tank – sometimes under fire – to replace the faulty part. Many fitters did not survive the war.
After the war Arthur had the less dangerous task of guard duty outside Buckingham Palace, and recalls that the young princesses Elizabeth and Margaret could be demanding employers, sending through reprimands if they felt they had not been saluted sufficiently smartly when returning to the Palace in the small hours.
Arthur later bumped into my dad in London at the Victory Parade on the Mall on June 8 1946.
“When it was all over and we were waiting for the crowd to disperse, suddenly an airman stood in front of me, Aelwyn!! He had spotted me as we marched down the Mall to our positions! We hadn’t met for years. The Sergeant Major who was standing in front of me turned round to blast me for talking on parade then decided to let it go!”
Being only 17 when the war started, Arthur at 98 is one the younger veterans, and has been in demand for TV interviews in recent years, sought after for his vivid and lucid wartime reminiscences.
His brother Rhys, eighteen years his senior, also fought in the Battle of Normandy: he kept a diary, which Arthur only found out about some twenty years after the war. When Rhys died in 1974 his daughter Mair found his story among his papers and circulated it to the family, and Arthur translated it from Welsh into English for the benefit of non Welsh speakers. It makes fascinating if sometimes difficult reading.
After the war Arthur went from tank to tanker: for four years he drove the milk tanker from the local creamery to Liverpool every day – in an unheated cabin through the bitter winter of 1947 – before being promoted to an office job as assistant manager. Eventually in 1965 he took over his brother’s shop and ran the sub post office with his wife Mair, before retiring eighteen years later.
Unfortunately I only took an interest in the family tree after my parents died, and there are many questions I would have like to ask my mum and dad about their childhood, their parents, grandparents, cousins, great-uncles and great-aunties, and all the other family anecdotes. So to meet someone like Arthur, who remembers my dad as a child, and has so many stories to tell, is very precious.
One story concerns his Aunty Maggie, my nain, a schoolteacher.
“Aunty Maggie was a very doughty lady indeed whose first words to us when she arrived on a visit were “Let me see your books!” Homework and satchels would vanish when we heard Uncle Bob’s car outside!”
Arthur also told an amusing story about my dad Aelwyn which I hadn’t heard before. Maggie told her son Aelwyn – about ten at the time – to take Arthur, about eight, who was round at their house for a day – for a walk up the hill from their house in Dolgellau. Perhaps Maggie had put up with as much noise from the boys as she could. Anyway, it seems Aelwyn resented being put in charge of his young cousin and he wanted to watch the cricket match: so he abandoned Arthur at the top of the hill and ran back down so he wouldn’t miss the first over. When taken to task, apparently, he replied that he had only been told to take Arthur up the hill.
Arthur is the fount of all knowledge about the Llanuwchllyn tree, and I wasn’t the first visitor hungry for family stories. On seeing a photo of his grandmother Elin, who died was Arthur was thirteen, he volunteered “I don’t think she had a tooth in her mouth!” He keeps an extensive family tree on a long paper scroll, much consulted by local genealogists.
Visiting in September 2020, we were restricted in what we could do. We weren’t able to bring our daughters along, or shake hands with my newly found relatives as I would wish. But I was able to meet four second cousins for the first time – the fourth being Irwyn, to whom Gwerfyl introduced us at the Eagles – and renew my acquaintance with the wonderful Arthur. Having lived near London and worked in the City for most of my life, I could have felt like a foreigner in a part of Britain where English is very much the second language. But the people were welcoming, and instead I felt the warm embrace of my Welsh family. It felt like coming home.
In contrast to the sad stories of Richard and Evan John, Debbie and I stumbled on a much happier story from Pantclyd’s more recent history. We were walking up the Aran from Llanuwchllyn, headed towards a ladder stile over the corner of a stone wall. There was nobody in sight, until a man and woman emerged from our right. We met at the stile, and got chatting. I mentioned that we had visited Pantclyd, and he said he had grown up in a farm along the valley. His name was Robin, and his wife was Gill.
Gill then told how, when she was a girl, her family was on a camping holiday in Llanuwchllyn, when they were cut off from their destination by flooding. They were saved by Geraint and Eiddon’s father Idris Edwards, who allowed them to camp at Pantclyd. They liked it so much they ended up coming back every year. During their time staying at Pantclyd, Jill met Robin in the local chapel, and they were married in 1967.
Assuming that everyone in Llanuwchllyn would know Arthur, I mentioned that we had visited him, and Robin confirmed that he knew ‘Arthur shop’ and that they were related, to some degree. Arthur was able to confirm that Robin was indeed my third cousin, and for good measure, that he was Sir Robin, a noted physicist who had served as Vice-Chancellor at the University of Wales, Swansea for nine years. What were my chances of walking up a remote hill and bumping into a cousin and a knight of the realm? In Llanuwchllyn, I’d say, quite high.
Not a bowl made of copper, but one containing mostly 1p and 2p coins, awkward change from those days when cash was commonplace. It struck me that many houses in my village, Chorleywood – where most residents are lucky enough not to need every penny – might have just such a bowlful, waiting to be collected for a charity.
It was late summer 2011: like many others I was saddened by the terrible drought and famine in East Africa, and the Disaster Emergency Committee had launched an appeal. I thought of our copper bowl. I had time – a week of unused holiday – and I had pent-up energy accumulated during a long injury induced break from running. I decided to carry out a local collection. If that was successful, perhaps it could be scaled up nationally. Could this be my Geldof moment? First, I would have to see how it went in Chorleywood.
There are rules to follow, you can’t just go round rattling a tin. You have to apply to your local licensing authority – in my case Three Rivers District Council – for a licence.
The licence duly came through, and my bluff was called. Now I had to do it. I based my plan of campaign on a 2005 Electoral Register of Chorleywood West, the most recent I could get my hands on. From this I calculated there were 2,003 households to target for collection. My first task was to get the flyers designed and printed.
I ordered plenty of these A4 flyers, folded in half to A5, ready for insertion into clear sealable plastic bags for delivery. The idea was that householders could simply tip their spare coins into the bag ready for collection.
2,003, I discovered, is a large number of houses, especially in a fairly rural area like Chorleywood, where there are many long driveways, and lengthy walks between them. Luckily I had help from my wife, a daughter, some of her friends, and one or two friends dotted round the village.
The main distribution effort coincided with some of the hottest October weather seen in England, with temperatures approaching 30°C, which made a full day’s delivery challenging. But this was still the easy part. The challenge was always going to be the collection, with the embarrassment of approaching strangers to ask them for money.
By the time we had finished delivering the leaflets, it was time to start collecting from our starting point. I made up some simple but authentic ‘Authorised Collector” badges, and I began in my own road, where I had an early taste of the range of responses I could expect. One man opened his door, stared at me blankly while I made my brief pitch, then shook his head silently and closed the door. One lady opened her purse, and on failing to find much in the way of change, considered for a moment before placing a ten pound note in the bag.
One man who lived in a large gated house resisted the temptation use the intercom to tell me to go away: instead he buzzed the gate to allow me to approach his front door, where he made a donation. Perhaps he wished to dispel the impression that visitors to his castle weren’t welcome. Most gave something, but only one or two fitted my target profile – the ones who had accumulated small change that they didn’t need, which they were happy to donate.
As we ventured further into Chorleywood, a pattern emerged. We were doing this at a difficult time of year: the kids were at school and many houses were empty. By the time the occupants had returned it would be too dark to be knocking on doors. We made two attempts to collect from each address: if the second was unsuccessful we put a slip through the door.
My first full day of collections was only patchily successful, and I hadn’t needed any trips back to my car to relieve the weight of my shoulder bag. But one man said yes, I’ve got a whole shoebox full of 1p and 2p coins. Do you really want them? Yes, I explained, that’s exactly what we’re looking for. They’re in the attic, he said, can you come back in an hour? And there it was, a big box of coins. It took me twenty minutes to count and bag it, but I didn’t mind. For reasons which might not reflect well on me, I’ve always enjoyed counting money.
A number of encounters stayed in my mind. There was a very trusting old lady who asked me inside and chatted for ten minutes while she fussed around trying to find the bag. Don’t worry, I said, I’ve got plenty of spares. No, she said, it’s here somewhere. Of course she was just lonely and wanted a chat. There was a picture of a smiling boy in a stadium wearing a baseball cap. “My grandson” she said quietly. “They’re in America. I don’t see them very often.”
I reached the house of a friend of ours. She said she’d seen the leaflet and thought it was a great idea. “How’s it going?” she asked. It had been a slow morning. “So far I’ve got more material for a book than money” I replied glumly. They kept a jar for small change in their hallway so large that she needed my help to safely tip it out. “This is the moment it’s been waiting for” she said. That’s what I call a friend. Time to stop for the morning and end on a high.
One man said he had an accumulation of foreign coins, would I accept those? I thought, why not, we could get something for them. Another man raised his finger and said “Wait a minute.” He soon came with a Swiss 50 franc note, with about a quarter missing. “You’re welcome to this if you can use it.’ After a little research, I posted it off to the Swiss National Bank, and within a few days they sent back a brand new 50 franc note. Now that’s a country which takes its currency seriously. I was able to exchange it for about £35.
When my wife was collecting she called on one of the grandest houses in Chorleywood, a mansion in a row of mansions. The lady of the house invited her in, and then spent fifteen minutes explaining why she wasn’t going to give anything.
Of course, no-one is obliged to donate – after all, it’s their money. I’m not too fond of cold-callers on the doorstep myself. Many said they had already made a contribution to the TV appeal. But to gratuitously waste the collector’s time seemed a step too far. Perhaps she was lonely too.
There is an artist well-known in the village, who contributed generously, and then said “Now it’s your turn.” She had up a charitable foundation in the name of her son who had died tragically young, and asked for a donation. I was happy to oblige, reassuring her that the money was coming from my own pocket.
One of the incidental benefits of the project was the opportunity to get up close to some interesting and beautiful local houses. For years I had been amused by a sign announcing a house named after a southern US state, tucked out of sight down a long driveway. It seemed an absurd name for a house in commuter belt Hertfordshire. But on approach it was a large white house with a grand portico, surrounded by open country. With the unseasonably blue sky behind it, it could have been a plantation house in the Deep South.
One finding from our team of collectors was that we obtained better results collecting in our own roads, where we were better known and (hopefully) trusted. If I had been able to recruit a collector for each road, as well as having much less work to do, we might have collected more.
As the collection drew to a close, it was gratifying to receive a number of phone calls from people who had been out when I called, many with large piles of coins to contribute. It felt good to ring a doorbell knowing my visit was welcome.
I had my eye on another source of funds. In the City dealing room where I worked was a huge glass jar, into which people would drop their small change and leftover holiday coins and notes. Over a few years it had filled to a point where it took two people to move it. Having established that there was no plan to empty it and no proposed use for its contents, I was allowed to annex it.
But before simply tipping out the contents and counting them, I had another wheeze to increase revenue: a charity competition at £10 a ticket. Entrants had to guess the total value of UK currency in the jar, and half of the ticket money would be given out in prizes for the three closest guesses. Twenty-five entrants meant another £125 for the appeal.
The entries provided support for the idea of the wisdom of the crowd, with the mean of all the guesses coming in within 3% of the correct figure – although one respected analyst was so spectacularly wide of the mark that subsequently I regarded his work with scepticism. Some colleagues volunteered to help out on a quiet afternoon , and we spent a happy half hour counting. That jar contained £263.56 in British money, just 94p away from the winning guess. Adding in the money from the competition and the proceeds of selling a few Euros, the jar brought in nearly £400. It was quite an effort to take that lot to the bank.
Once all the collections were finished, and the coins bagged up, I drove my overburdened car to the nearest bank that was open on a Saturday morning to deposit it into the DEC East Africa Appeal account. I also found a dealer where I could exchange the accumulation of foreign coins. Adding everything together, we had raised £2,603.56 – the local contribution averaging slightly more than £1 per house.
Was it worth it? Yes of course, we raised a decent sum of money for an excellent cause, and the experience of planning and carrying out the collection was interesting and mostly enjoyable, if sometimes exhausting. Would I do it again? Well, no. The most stressful part was ringing on strangers’ doorbells. Perhaps I’m not sufficiently thick-skinned. And though we raised a worthwhile amount, it didn’t seem amazing for the effort and time we had put in. It would have been much easier to work (even) harder in my regular job and make a personal donation.
I remember calling on a house occupied by a couple I took to be recently retired. The man took me into his garage to show me some neatly arranged storage jars he had accumulated, each filled with a different denomination: 1p, 2p, 5p and 10p. He hadn’t really known what he was going to do with them, so he seemed quite grateful to have the opportunity to put them to good use. While he took them away to decant them, I chatted to his wife. “That’s a very kind gesture of your husband” I commented. Her face softened and her eyes seemed to lose their focus.
Gripping read, isn’t it? That’s how I spent my leisure time when I was 25. It’s the most important thing I’ve ever written, by a wide margin. Having left Deloitte Haskins & Sells the previous year citing technical differences with the examiners, I obtained a measure of closure by getting this article – criticising an aspect of their audit techniques – published in Accountancy, the most widely read magazine of that profession.
As a failed accountant, I didn’t exactly have the world at my feet, so I had settled for a fairly dull job as assistant in the two-man Statistics department of a small, specialised stockbroking firm, Gilbert Eliott & Co. My boss Dick was about sixty, and I could see my future etched in his closed, tetchy old face, measured in endless priority percentage calculations, monthly preference and bond updates, and in thirty-nine annual fixed interest handbooks.
But while Mr George Baylis FCA – the firm’s personnel officer and a qualified accountant – was enjoying his complimentary copy of Accountancy, my face stared back at him from page 136. He let me know he had seen the article, and he must have mentioned it to his fellow partners. Within a week, the head of the preference department, Peter Thompson, had come into our tiny office – carefully choosing the hour when Dick was at lunch – and asked whether I would like to transfer to his department: initially to help with administration and dealing, but with a view to graduating to broking.
In the early 1980s the City was still largely populated by the old guard of aristocratic third sons, blackguards unsuited for the army or the church and lazy old gents wandering in to to the office at ten from the Waterloo train, disappearing for lunch between one and four. Many were lazy, some were plain stupid. Steadily they were being replaced by sharp- witted lads from Essex, grammar school boys and even the odd graduate.
So when Mr Thompson made his offer, I didn’t hesitate. Given the calibre of some of my colleagues, it shouldn’t be difficult to make a mark. My knowledge of the stocks was comprehensive after the stats training, but the sales aspect of the job didn’t come easily: for a long time I was nervous of making a fool of myself on the telephone.
The partners must have thought the safest course was to assign me accounts where the firm was doing little business, so I couldn’t do much damage, and might improve our revenue there. After a slow start, ambition eventually overcame fear. One lunchtime when I was alone, minding the shop, it was as if a switch had been flicked in my head: suddenly I knew what to do. I made four sales calls, and two of them were successful. The two partners on the desk came back to a couple of decent dealing slips they hadn’t expected.
But the day I really got my feet under the desk was in 1983, on 3rd August which happens to be my birthday. A fund manager from a previously barren account which I had been carefully (but so far unsuccessfully) cultivating – supplying a stream of what I hoped was helpful information and analysis – called me up out of the blue. “Are you busy this morning?’ she asked. “Oh, one or two things on” I lied. She ignored my reply and pressed on. “Well, you will be now. Have you got a pen and paper? I want to sell these.” And she read out a long list of holdings. Over the day we got all the business done. Now I knew I could do the job.
Of course, the problem for the firm in assigning its dead accounts to the new guy was that I now knew that the revenue I had generated attached to me personally as much as it did to the firm. This made me confident of what I was worth to my employer.
If a person gives you something, it is instinctive to thank them. But when Mr Thompson handed me a bonus slip representing an amount of money I could only have dreamt of three years earlier – and of course exceeded the social value of my work by a huge factor – I resisted the impulse to thank him. I simply nodded acknowledgement and said “OK.” Because the bonus was clearly a miserly percentage of the increased revenue I had brought in.
This was Thatcher’s decade, the age of the yuppie. Before long, opportunity knocked again in the shape of an approach from a rival firm. “Big Bang” was on the horizon, and broking firms, buoyed with cash from US and other banks, were aggressively recruiting. When Simon & Coates (soon to trade as Chase Manhattan) named the salary they were proposing to pay me, I needed time to consider it. About three seconds. I tried to contain my excitement. “I think that sounds reasonable” I said. I was on my way. And all thanks to that very dull article.
“If you played for your primary school football team, come and stand over here.”
I proudly went and stood over there. So did three quarters of the class. The prefect who had been tasked with helping to stream the first year into equal ‘A’ and ‘B’ groups scratched his head and consulted the master. Then he pointed to McKenzie, the tallest boy in this large elite.
“You, come and stand here. The rest of you, stand next to him in order of height, tallest on the left.”
There was much jostling and preening in the middle ranks, but I knew my place, and went straight to the right. The cut was duly made two thirds of the way along the line, and I was consigned to the B-stream.
Watford Grammar liked to rub shoulders with prestigious private schools, and rugby was key to that strategy. The absence of football was the cause of periodic unsuccessful protests at the school. We started the term playing hockey, which I quite enjoyed, then after half term we were switched to rugby.
It was easy for me to stand out in this group. Most had no talent and no interest. I was fiercely competitive – with reasonable ball skills, and good acceleration. Mainly, I cared – I was determined. My tackling technique was sound: if I wanted to stop a boy, even a large one, he was coming down. Mr Morgan looked in despair at the kids trying not to get dirty, running away from the ball, shirking tackles, standing there shivering – generally ninnying about – and declared “Edwards is the only one of you with any guts!”
I was promoted to training for the U12 team. Dad thought I’d make an excellent scrum-half, but that position was taken. I can’t actually remember what position I was assigned – I certainly wasn’t part of the scrum – probably the wing, as I was given the job of throwing the ball in at the line-out. We worked out our signal: if I was told to throw long, I should throw short, and vice versa. I wondered how long it would take our opponents to crack that code.
The Saturday in January dawned crisp and cold. So cold that when Dad dropped me off at the school that afternoon, a master was waiting there to tell us the match was cancelled as the pitch was frozen hard. My debut would have to wait.
Dad loved rugby. He had played for London Welsh second team in the late 1940s, and captained their third team. He was of average height, and not heavily built, but fast and skilful. He recounted how, after he had once scored a try, a teammate had said ‘I knew we’d score as soon as I saw R.A.’s head go back.’
Eventually, though, he suddenly realised, as he was standing one afternoon on a muddy pitch in driving rain, that he wasn’t enjoying it any more, and retired from the game. He would sometimes go to Twickenham with his brother when England played Wales, but mostly watched on TV. My brother and I once had reason to be glad of his enthusiasm: after watching a thrilling Wales win, Dad leapt from his chair and said ‘Right, is Moore’s still open?’ and we rushed down to Mill End to buy the secondhand moped Rob and I had been eyeing up.
Rob’s unusual left leg restricted his running, and had ruled him out of playing football or rugby competitively. Dad would love to have a rugby playing son, and I was his last chance.
So far most of my rugby had been played against kids who were small, or uninterested, or both. When training resumed for our next school fixture, I had a taste of playing against larger boys who actually cared. At eleven years some had entered a rapid growth phase, and the gap in height and weight seemed to grow by the week. For a while I continued to hurl myself at them, but soon it occurred to me that I could get hurt, and my conviction started to waver.
So at the training session I spoke up and confessed to the coach that I didn’t want to be in the team. I just wasn’t enjoying it. He was disappointed: I had been chosen for my competitive spirit: where had that gone? But he accepted it, and asked if anyone else didn’t want to be there. A boy called Mark took advantage of the opportunity to make a more low key exit, and as we walked away he confided ‘I wish I had the gift of the gab like you.’ My brief spell in the U12s was over, and I now played rugby on Monday afternoons only.
When Dad died in 2015, I went through his address book to make sure everyone had been notified. One card went to Richard, about my age, the son of one of my Mum’s best friends. In his reply, after offering condolences, he wrote:
I will always remember how he gave me his old London Welsh rugby shirt when I started playing for them. I carried it around in my sports bag for the next five years as a good luck mascot.
I never knew that. I couldn’t have reached the heights of London Welsh. But I thought, if that fixture hadn’t been cancelled, had I stayed the course, Dad would have loved to give me that shirt.
The chance to meet one of your heroes is rare, so when I heard that Michael Palin was visiting Chorleywood Bookshop to sign his new book I snapped up a couple of tickets. Erebus: The Story of a Ship is a thoroughly researched and readable account of an exploration vessel which disappeared in 1845, and was finally found in 2014. But I wouldn’t have considered a purchase had it not been bundled with the opportunity to meet the great man. Craig, who accompanied me, was probably one of very few in the long queue with a genuine and deep interest in naval history.
Palin, sitting at the table greeting customers and signing books as quickly as his charm and good manners would allow, wore a slightly weary demeanour suggesting he was conscious of the transaction to which he was party: he wasn’t promoting a book so much as selling meet-and-greets. Perhaps to counter this perception (we were told he had a strict deadline to leave for another engagement) it was announced that photographs weren’t allowed, and he wouldn’t be posing for selfies. This would not be the occasion to recite your dead parrot lines.
Michael Palin has had a wonderful career. After the brilliant success of the Monty Python TV show and films, he has written and starred in other shows, been a successful writer of fiction, non fiction and children’s books, and a film actor. He has travelled the world many times for his documentaries, and served as president of the Royal Geographical Society. In 2019 he received a knighthood.
But he knows that it is his early work with Monty Python, touched with genius, which will endure, and is the reason why so many people are here. Today he’s in the business of selling books, and he does it very professionally. But I can’t escape the feeling that he’d rather be somewhere else.
Kelly Holmes became one of my biggest sporting heroes after I saw her win both the 800m and the 1500m in the stadium at the 2004 Athens Olympics. She had seemed surprised to win the 800m on 23 August, but five days later was imperious in the 1500m. She ran a relaxed race, in eighth position at the bell, and steadily moved through the field on the final lap to be right on the shoulder of the leaders coming into the home straight: she was unstoppable, and the British contingent in the stadium went crazy.
Her event was not just a signing: there was an interview in Christ Church Chorleywood, illustrated with video. She entered with a limp acquired during a 5k – testament to her continuing competitive spirit – but otherwise looked in excellent shape, capable of being first finisher at any parkrun she chose to enter, fourteen years after her Olympic triumphs.
She spoke movingly about her childhood, acknowledging the support from her mother – while describing her absentee father as ‘the sperm donor’ – and about her struggles with injury, which at one point caused her to self harm. To much applause we were shown videos of her gold medal winning performances, which, she admitted, she never tired of watching. Why would she? Once, after swearing, she looked around guiltily and said ‘Oh sorry! In a church! Or what is it, a cathedral?’
We queued to buy her book – a lifestyle guide, which again, I wouldn’t otherwise have bought – and more importantly, meet her. The queue was long, but she had time for everyone – she seemed to be enjoying every minute. When my turn came, I told her I had been in the stadium cheering her victories, and thanked her for making those Olympics so special. She was lovely: she signed my book and posed for a photo.
When I showed this to my wife she pointed out that I had put my arm around her waist. My god, so I did! How did I dare? Sorry, I can only suggest that she was such a friendly, approachable presence that it seemed natural, and that she seemed so small (5 feet 3) that it made me feel protective. Of a world beating athlete.
Sir Michael Palin and Dame Kelly Holmes have some things in common. Both have huge achievements to their credit, some years in their past. So why should their attitudes to continued celebrity be so different? Neither is likely to regain their previous heights.
But this is surely easier for Holmes to accept: every athlete realises they will start to slow after reaching 30 – in fact Holmes was 34 in Athens, and retired a short while later. She had, perhaps, the perfect timeline, in that she crowned an inconsistent and often frustrating career with brilliant success. She was able to go out on a huge high, with no regrets: this allows her an uncomplicated enjoyment of her celebrity.
Creatives like Palin, however, are likely to have a different perspective. His best work was as a writer and comic actor, nothing too physically strenuous. Why should it not be possible to maintain success at the same level into his old age? Probably because it is very difficult to sustain cutting edge creativity over a long period. Some comedians, of course, maintained a very long career: Bob Hope and George Burns spring to mind, but they were hardly revolutionary.
Monty Python, by contrast, was mould-breaking, and moulds can be broken but once. To sustain that level of creativity, of continuous surprise, is hardly possible. Spike Milligan possibly succeeded, but he was a once in a generation comic genius. It is much more common for comedians to follow the route, as Palin has, to writing books and acting.
When Peter Cook died, some obituaries regretted that he had never fulfilled his early potential. Jonathan Ross pointed out that Cook had simply fulfilled his potential early. So it is for Palin and the rest of the Python team. They could never hope to match what they achieved in those early years. Just ask Paul McCartney.
Alan looked listlessly at the minutes he had taken of the meeting. It wouldn’t be difficult to tidy them up so they would read smoothly. A coherent and complete account of – what? The bickerings of academics, mostly old, male and white. No wonder there were so many murders in Oxford.
It wouldn’t be difficult, and that was the problem: he was bored, although the professors would often praise his diplomatic skills. He had the knack of nudging warring parties to compromises, quelling storms in this parish teacup. Perhaps he had no enemies because he was so mildly flavoured and preferred to avoid conflict.
He remembered with a start the school reunion he’d agreed to attend the following Saturday in Reading, a group of five gathering to mark thirty years since leaving school. He should probably book a room at the pub. But the website showed no rooms available. Damn, left it too late. There was a Premier Inn within ten minutes’ walk, but he couldn’t face it. He resolved to forego alcohol and drive back to his own bed.
When he arrived the boys were already onto their second pint, and the conversation was lively. The others had all arranged taxis or booked rooms in town, and after the initial greetings he felt out of step, excluded by sobriety as they grew louder. Disengaged, he let his eyes wander round the group.
Look at Robert, the cool one, who’d been in a band at school and dropped out before his final year. After a decade of trying and failing to make it as a musician and songwriter, two failed marriages and three children, his dad had lent him the money to buy a beat-up old studio, and he’d refitted it, and done very nicely, thank you: now he rubbed shoulders with rock royalty, and was regaling them with stories of Eric Clapton and Van Morrison. Like the gold rush, thought Alan, the prospectors don’t often get rich, it’s the guy who sells them the picks and shovels. Robert had lived.
And Martin the nerd, laughing enthusiastically at Robert’s anecdotes – already alternating his G&Ts with straight tonic water – who had wanted nothing more, since he was fourteen, than to be an accountant, and had applied himself single-mindedly to this steady ambition. Surely he was even more boring than Alan? Maybe not, Alan had to concede, because he had such an air of contentment – seemed so relaxed in his skin – that he made very easy company, never seeking the limelight – one of the gang.
Mark, he remembered, had come in to school on a motorbike almost as soon as he reached sixteen, and had spent his weekends tinkering with it. Whether to make it faster or just noisier Alan never knew. Mark had trained as an engineer, and had wound up in charge of a large car plant in the Midlands. He still favoured a leather jacket – although the evening was warm – and walked unevenly, the steel pins in his leg a souvenir of his biking days. He asserted, as he waved his pint about, that Brexit would make no difference to the business.
Alan went to challenge this view, but mistimed his effort to be heard over the volume of his alcohol-fuelled friends. His mind drifted back to the sixth form: his French teacher “Your work is excellent, Loudon. Have you considered Oxbridge?” And Mr Kershaw had been right, in a way. Alan had sailed into Oxford with near perfect A-levels. He hadn’t enjoyed the atmosphere of the college – initially he found it stifling – but he applied himself well to his studies, and when his tutor pointed out that he was on course for a solid first, and encouraged him to study for a doctorate, Alan had felt flattered.
Eager to please, and not drawn to any external careers, he had remained in academia out of inertia and…lack of imagination? He’d found exams easy since primary school, and had been happy to let himself be swept straight ahead, as long as he received approval, never curious about other avenues, wary of the world outside.
So Alan started a doctoral thesis. On, then, to R. But he soon realised he was not yet at Q: he was not sure he had even reached N yet. He could answer questions easily, it seemed, but was he smart enough to ask one? He felt his intellect – or fatally, his curiosity – reaching its limit. With help from his tutor, he had concocted a question, and answered it in a way that was…fine, and duly collected his doctorate. But – and he was still embarrassed by how long he had taken to realise this – even if he became England’s greatest expert on Maurois, Molière and Mauriac, so what? He would still rank behind a hundred professeurs and professeures who had grown up speaking French, steeped in the literature and culture.
So he had lost any interest in pursuing a teaching post, but having met Alison he didn’t want to leave Oxford. He accepted a modest job in administration, and had risen to become secretary to one of the smaller colleges.
Nigel, who had got wind of the gathering and invited himself along, was now holding forth on how share prices were about to plummet. Annoying know-it-all little Nigel, Wormtail of the group, who had gone to work in the City and now owned a huge house in Beaconsfield. Thirty years on, bumptious as ever.
But that was it. The others all loved what they did. Square pegs who’d found square holes. Except for the accountant Martin, there had been no career plan, just trial and error, opportunistic – sometimes desperate – leaps from rock to rock. But here they all were, full of life, brimming with stories. Alan found himself fingering the car keys in his pocket, although it was not yet ten o’clock.
He paused for a moment to examine the thicket and recover his breath. Several long, tangled muscular strands of brambles stretched in front of him, one at eye level, another lower from which a thorn even now snagged on his thigh, just below his shorts…shorts! Beyond that, a dense, spiky bush, was it hawthorn? Then a steep bank, heavily populated with nettles, leading down to a ditch, filled with black water of unknown depth. The other side of the ditch, another steep slope, thick with bushes, mature enough to draw blood when they touched him, too spindly to use to pull himself up. And beyond that, the relative sanctuary of the A34 dual carriageway.
Going further forward was impossible. He turned his head to consider retreat, and felt something scratch his neck. The blood trickling down his legs argued against trying to retrace his steps.
It had started pleasantly enough: he had been happy to drive his daughter over to her friend‘s house for a socially distanced visit. It was a fair day in June, and he left them catching up in the garden, and promised to return after a couple of hours exploring the Oxfordshire countryside. The walk had started along a clear, broad track, and he had stepped out confidently, enjoying his new navigation app. It was very accurate. He crossed a bridge over the A34 and headed on across fields to another busy road. His phone told him to turn left and follow the pavement along another main road. After a while he would come to a path across fields, heading back towards where he had come from.
When he reached the point where the path was supposed to be, there was a rotted old post with an empty slot where a sign had been, and the ruins of a stile, topped with barbed wire. He could see no footpath, just a rough uneven field. He tried walking past it, but the arrow on his phone pointed him back. This was definitely the route, so he pitched himself over and moved unsteadily across the lumpy, nettle-strewn field, hoping the path would soon reveal itself.
With relief he saw that the next field was easier going, and he swung his legs over a low stretch of fence and continued following the red arrow in his palm. Then he realised why the grass was so short: it had been grazed by a large herd of cattle, visible at the far end of the field. He strode on, thinking little of it, until he noticed that the cows seemed agitated, and were all running along the far side of the field. Probably the footpath was so rarely used that walkers made them anxious. He started to wonder if his choice of a bright red shirt had been wise.
The cows veered towards the middle of the field, and some began to approach him, shielding their calves. One then ran straight towards him in a challenge. He thought: don’t run, don’t make eye contact, ignore them and keep walking briskly to the end of the field. The cow got within ten feet before peeling off. He started sweating: people die this way. He remembered that a friend of a friend had been trampled by cows, and how the unsinkable comedy of his death had coloured the solemnity of the funeral. He thought: I’m going to die, and it will be a big joke.
Another cow pulled away from the herd and charged towards him, hooves thudding, getting even closer before turning away. His heartbeat pounded in his ears. He quickened his pace further, keeping his eyes on a battered stile at the field corner. As he retreated, the cows at last lost interest, and he was able to make the final fifty yards to the stile without further incident. Once out of the field, he closed his eyes and stopped to regain his breath. Jesus, that was scary.
There was still no trace of a path, so he kept aiming for where it should have been. He could see only a thick hedge ahead, but racing adrenaline told him there must be a way through. And indeed, there did seem to be a slight thinning of the vegetation, and he headed into it with determination, barely hesitating as the bramble and bushes grew denser. He soon regretted this confidence, as he looked around with no idea how he could move forward or back. Retracing his steps, even if he could get back through the hedge, would mean running the gauntlet of those cattle again, and he was not doing that.
He stared at the water in the ditch. How deep was it? Would it go up to his ankles or his knees? Perhaps if he found something to grasp, he could momentarily plant a foot in the ditch and haul himself up the other side. But the bushes on the opposite bank looked at once scrawny and menacing. He wished he had thick gloves, and a stout stick to thrash at the brambles to test the depth of the water. Meanwhile the traffic thundered past close by, mockingly reminding him how close he was to civilisation – at least, the A34’s approximation to it.
As he paused, the sun emerged from behind a cloud, and a trickle of sweat ran down his face. He cursed the Ordnance Survey and picked a couple of small thorns from his arms. Maybe if he lifted his foot high enough he could trample down one of the strands of bramble. But his left foot was not on firm ground, and kept sliding down the slope whenever he tried to raise his right foot. He imagined how absurd he must look, trapped in this spiky cage he had freely entered. He pictured calling the fire brigade or being airlifted out by a helicopter.
He realised he had no idea what to do next, and had to fight back tears of anger and frustration. Despair was setting in. No, that wouldn’t do. Forward. He managed to trample down the most obstructive piece of bramble. He leaned forward gingerly to test the stem of one of the bushes across the ditch, but the thorns were too close to allow any grip. After trying a few more, he found a weedy specimen, right at the limit of his reach as he leant over, which did at least have space for his hand. It was his only shot.
He paused to compose himself, planning where to plant one foot in the dark water of the ditch, and the other on a clear spot on the opposite bank. He would need to be bold to get the speed to climb up the other side. He would have to push his bare legs, arms and face through the spiky vegetation. He waited another moment, then took a deep breath, intoned“Come on!” and launched himself across the ditch.
Both feet landed where he had planned, but as he tried to haul himself up the bank his rear foot stuck briefly in the soft mud of the ditch, and he lost momentum. He tried to support himself using the feeble plant he was grasping, but it wasn’t up to the task, and he slid back into the ditch among a tangle of prickles. He waved his arms and legs frantically, trying to right himself, once more somehow had time to recognise how comical he must look. He heard something heavy splash into the water.
He finally righted himself, standing in the black water halfway up his shins, feeling its foulness between his toes. He patted his front pocket. Yes, that was his phone. For god’s sake, why had he put it there? He bent over and half-heartedly fished around, but found only mud and more prickles. It would be ruined anyway. There goes my fire brigade, my helicopter.
He imagined his daughter enjoying her friend’s company, oblivious to the time. How long would it be before he was missed? He wished he had told her where he was going. Twelve feet away the traffic still roared past, another world.
Aelwyn peered sleepily at the darkness through the kitchen window. “It’s not fair. Why can’t I go too?”
“Because you’re too young.”
Maggie continued to fuss over Glyn. “No, you’ll need your raincoat. Have you got your sandwiches? Your apple? Your water bottle? Your permission slip? Bob, could you get Glyn tuppence spending money? Thank you. Glyn, put your cap on straight.”
Aelwyn was bitterly disappointed, but complaining wouldn’t change anything, just annoy his mum. He was nearly eight, three measly years younger, that was all, and his big brother was making no effort to hide his excitement. Soon he would be joining his friends on the long charabanc trip from Dolgellau.
“Two hundred and three years! It’s been two hundred and three years since the last one, and it’ll be another two hundred and three years until the next one!”
“No darling” said Maggie mildly, peering over her husband’s shoulder at the Liverpool Daily Post. “It says here there’s going to be another one in 1999. On August 11th.”
“Oh thanks, I’ll put it in my diary.”
Maggie looked sharply at the boy, but saw the beginning of a smile on his face. Bob stirred from his newspaper.
“Only seventy-two years to wait, Aelwyn!”
“And forty-three days!”
Bob, the headmaster, smiled and winked at his son, the future actuary. He furtively handed him two pennies as Maggie saw Glyn out of the door. “You’d better get back to bed.”
I’ll be eighty, thought Aelwyn. Some people get to eighty, don’t they?
Seventy-two years and forty-three days later, Aelwyn woke up in Merryfield Manor in St Cleer. His two sons had organised a holiday with their young families for him and Kath: eleven people in all, with Alice at three the youngest of four granddaughters.
Rob and Rik were tempted by the thought of driving to the Cheesewring, an atmospheric ancient site, to view the eclipse, but were overruled by concerns about traffic, parking and crowds. So a leisurely breakfast was taken, and the garden chairs were strategically placed ready for the event at ten past eleven. Aelwyn told his story from 1927. Glyn had indeed needed his raincoat: it had poured with rain and no-one had seen a thing, beyond a few seconds of heightened gloom.
The children were repeatedly warned against looking directly at the sun, so that Robyn, the oldest, was moved to announce that she got it, thanks, and had no intention of blinding herself. The weather was not as bad as last time, but there was still a solid cloud covering. Anticipation mounted as the time approached.
When it came, it was atmospheric rather than spectacular. The clouds were thin enough that Aelwyn could make out the shape of the moon as it moved across the face of the sun, and as it grew darker he saw an owl swoop from woods nearby, and heard a cock crow in the distance.
Later he watched the sun go down with a glass of wine in his hand, and spoke of punching the air in celebration after being told about the special holiday. “It was an amazing experience. Well worth waiting seventy-two years for.”
And forty-three days, Dad. Don’t forget the forty-three days.
Here are 50 questions: each describes a song. All you have to do is identify the song title – the artist is not required. To help you, I have given the year the song first became popular – the correct answer is a song from that year. As you will see, some of them go back a little way: if you’re under fifty, it might be worth teaming up with somebody who isn’t. The answer may come from the title or the lyrics of the song. Enjoy!
1) …permits triple winter precipitation? (1946)
2) …is sung by a man with remorseful leg-ends? (1984)
3) …is sung by a man admiring a girl on an underground train? (2005)
4) …describes a firm where workers have to get up at eight? (1967)
5) …recommends an osculatory judgement? (1991)
6) …laments the death of a local shopkeeper? (1967)
7) …is sung by a girl made pregnant by a boy she met in Alabama? (1971)
8) …tells the story of a boxer convicted of robbery and murder? (1975)
9) …is sung by a man whose music career has come to grief in Central Valley, California? (1969)
10) …offers the listener an opportunity to stay dry? (2007)
11) …celebrates the end of the scholastic year? (1972)
12) …refers to a sweet smelling missile? (1875)
13) …describes an ill-fated space voyage? (1969)
14) …celebrates surviving a long pop career? (1983)
15) …describes a courtroom murder? (1969)
16) …laments a romance that ended just over a fortnight ago? (1990)
17) …describes how a deceased soldier saved the singer’s life in Vietnam? (1986)
18) …recalls amorous times in NW3? (1985)
19) …takes a boat trip in northwest England? (1964)
20) …invites one of your children to a massacre? (1991)
21) …describes the aftermath of a racially motivated murder? (1939)
22) …asks whether an Italian clown can do a Spanish dance? (1975)
23) …contradicts an Osborne play? (1996)
24) …points out the ineffectiveness of medication? (1997)
25) …is narrated by an unhappy newsboy? (1972)
26) …dictates a letter written too late to save a murder and suicide? (2000)
27) …refers to a feline visual organ? (1982)
28) …is a plea of innocence by a boy accused of killing a girl? (1992)
29) …looks good but lacks content? (1977)
30) …requests ignition? (1967)
31) …mourns a lover lost to Hades by a glance? (1762)
32) …suggests she might serve drinks again? (1981)
33) …celebrates improved visibility? (1972)
34) …boasts of climbing skills? (1970)
35) …complains of paresthesia? (1964)
36) …follows a route between Portman Square and Regents Park? (1978)
37) …includes a request that the biscuits be passed? (1967)
38) …bemoans rotating runners? (1994)
39) …patriotically begins with a conjunction? (1916)
40) …tells of a 3,219 km journey to reach a wet place? (1968)
41) …warns of insomnia? (1926)
42) …displays ignorance of Iberian weather? (1956)
43) …confuses inconvenience with irony? (1996)
44) …describes fortifications on inadequate foundations? (2008)
45) …might refer to Coca-Cola or cherry cola? (1970)
46) …draws strength from borrowing books? (1996)
47) …recounts a nocturnal trip in Egypt? (1979)
48) …tells of an assault on an American mystery writer? (1967)
49) …shows repeated resilience in the face of excessive drinking? (1997)
Mum used to say that it was about Rob and me getting experience of religion, being exposed to it so we could make up her own mind, and we believed her, at least until we had young children of her own. Then we understood it was really about getting the parents a brief respite every Sunday from noisy kids.
As a six year old, I didn’t enjoy Bushey & Oxhey Methodist Sunday School: one morning on the car journey there, in my apprehensive mood I pressed my offering – a brass threepenny bit – so hard into my leg that it left the clear impression of its portcullis on my thigh.
Three years later, Rickmansworth Crusader class was much more fun. The leaders were younger and jollier, the choruses we sang were short and lively, and I became good friends with some of the boys – more so when some of them turned up in my class in the first year of Watford Grammar.
Crusaders had fun activities. There was poddox, a speedier form of cricket – perhaps exclusive to Crusaders – where each wicket consisted of two stumps with one bail, and a bowler was posted at each end to lob the ball underarm in alternating directions. The batters wielded rounders bats: if they hit the ball they had to run, and there were no boundaries. The heavy bat could propel the small ball a long way across Scotsbridge playing field, and it wasn’t unusual to score eight or nine off a single hit. Poddox was a great way to spend a Friday evening in the summer.
There were excursions like the trip to see Cliff Richard (wow!) perform at a gospel concert, like the five-a-side football tournament. Most of all there were the summer Crusader camps, usually by the seaside.
The days were full of fun and games and new friendships: after dinner was a prayer meeting where, tired and happy, we were receptive to hearing about God’s love. Then an evening walk followed by late night cocoa, and the magic of sleeping under canvas. (Crusaders are still with us today, having rebranded as Urban Saints in 2007.)
The experience of feeling safe and happy away from home and family was magical and intoxicating. The night I returned home, after volunteering to do the washing up I told Mum and Dad that I had accepted Jesus into my heart. I meant it, and at the age of twelve I regarded myself as a Christian. I tried diligently to read the prescribed Bible passage every night, and to say my prayers.
Watford Grammar was not diverse: in my year of about 120 boys there was one Asian and two Jewish boys. There was also one Catholic in our class who was excused daily assembly, which included hymns and prayers: the rest were all of white Christian Protestant heritage. But seeds of doubt were soon being sown in my mind.
Our Divinity master was Mr (later Dr) Raper, a scholarly but approachable man. When the class had got over sniggering at his name, he started teaching us about each different religion in turn. By the end of term, he had taken us through the basic principles of Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism, Judaism, Shinto and Sikhism, and offered objective comparisons with Christianity.
(Dr Raper was later to raise his head above the parapet during the pupil rebellion against a new school rule banning long hair in the summer of 1971. In a morning assembly he parsed the word education, arguing that education should bring pupils out rather than up. How many boys understood this coded message of support is unclear, but it wasn’t lost on the headmaster, Mr L K Turner – known to us as Trog. Raper had gone by the next term, and I still wonder whether he was firing a parting shot because he was already on his way, or if this incident caused the headmaster to encourage him to move on.)
My Christian faith should have led me to reject the other religions as simply wrong. But I regarded myself as rational, and this posed a dilemma. Having seen the contradictions in the beliefs and customs of the major religions set out so clearly, favouring one over the others seemed merely a tribal choice, like supporting a particular football team. Surely the only reasonable conclusion was that they must all be mistaken?
My faith was further shaken by my Scripture teacher the following year. Mr Lister, who for unknown reasons had the nickname “Fanny”, was terrifying. An austere, thin figure, he was probably in his sixties, although he appeared at least ninety to us: he had white hair and a white moustache, and was one of the handful of staff who persisted in wearing a gown. In my mind he was an older version of Bunter’s Mr Quelch.
Our Scripture lesson was first period on Thursday morning, which made for a restless Wednesday night. Lister would set us a passage of the Bible to learn – maybe fifteen or twenty verses – and set us a ten question test the following week. The passage would be from the Authorised Version, usually from the Old Testament, and full of obscure and difficult names. If there was any spiritual content, I never discerned it.
The pass mark for the test was (I think) 7/10, and you could get a detention for failing. Of course we all crammed the text into our heads on the way to school on Thursday morning, so it was all completely forgotten by the weekend. We shouldn’t blame God if some people dedicated to spreading His word are uninspiring or downright scary, but I felt my faith weakening again.
Science lessons also encouraged religious scepticism: physics and astronomy, chemistry and biology – especially natural selection – pointed to the origins of the universe, the Earth, and life having natural origins and could explain our world without envisaging a supreme creator.
The coup de grâce was administered at Crusaders when I was fourteen or fifteen, a trivial blow which proved decisive only because my commitment to Jesus was already wavering. One of the junior leaders, a fellow in his early twenties, told a story one Sunday afternoon: he had been with friends, on a road trip in the United States, when their car ran out of gas, and they pulled up at the side of the road. They prayed for God to help them, and soon a friendly motorist stopped and gave them enough gas to get them to the next filling station.
This story was offered as proof of God’s love, and the power of prayer. It seemed absurd that His priority, with so much pain and suffering in the world, would be to deliver these young Englishmen from this annoying inconvenience. Of course this was just one man’s daft story, but years of growing scepticism welled up into a wholesale rejection of Christianity, and I stopped attending Crusaders. The decision may also have been encouraged by a wish to reclaim my Sunday afternoons.
I embraced atheism with the certainty of youth, and for a while adopted an aggressively anti-religious stance. This has softened over the years: I have met many kind and thoughtful people for whom faith clearly provided support and inspiration. Christ’s teachings are wonderful, but I don’t believe in him as the Son of God. I certainly dislike the angry modern strain of atheism which carries hints of the zealotry and intolerance which, ironically, characterise the nastiest aspects of some faiths.
A friend of mine is a lifelong Christian, who was once told by an associate that his faith was misguided, false and selfish. What must that have felt like? Imagine having a fragile ornament in your house, which you love and think beautiful. Then a guest comes to your house and says “I’ve done you a favour, I smashed that hideous ornament of yours.” What right did he have to do that?
My friend’s experience set me thinking about Mr Raper. He hadn’t, as far as I know, set out to turn us into atheists, but he did provide a framework which encouraged us to question our beliefs. Had the outcome been positive for me? Had I acquired truth at the cost of faith and a large portion of hope? Would I have been happier, or a better person, had I remained in that apparent fool’s paradise?
Pascal’s Wager points out that the cost of believing in God if there is none might be some wasted effort in adjusting one’s lifestyle and in attending church – while the cost of not believing in God if He does exist could be eternal damnation. Pascal concluded that it was rational for a doubter to behave as if there was a God.
In this spirit, I reserve the right to allow emotion to override reason, and to be born again late in life. But God, please could you allow me a bit of notice?
Ronnie (as Magnus Magnusson): Our next contender is Mr Sten Ulysses Tayshen. Mr Tayshen, you have two minutes on general knowledge. Your time starts…now. Who was the Dutch graphic artist born in 1898, famous for his mathematically inspired woodcuts, lithographs, and mezzotints, specialising in impossible objects?
Other Ronnie (as contender, sneezing continually): Escher!
Correct. Name the American rapper born with the surname Raymond who has sold over eighty million records worldwide.
Correct. Which Anglo-American novelist, playwright, screenwriter, autobiographer, and diarist wrote “Goodbye to Berlin” which later inspired the musical “Cabaret”
Correct. In Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice”, what was Shylock’s religion?
Correct. What is the surname of Jane, actress, cake decorating expert and one time girlfriend of Paul McCartney?
Correct. The street newspaper founded by John Bird and Gordon Roddick in September 1991 for sale by homeless people in London was called the Big…what?
Correct. Which river rises in the North York Moors and reaches the North Sea at Whitby?
Correct. What is the german word, meaning health, often said after someone sneezes?
Gesundheit. In the Beano comic, what is the name of Dennis the Menace’s dog?
Correct. Which six letter word describes foods are those that conform to the Jewish dietary regulations of kashrut?
Correct. The Inuit and the Yupik substantially make up which group of people, based around the northern polar regions?
Correct. An Indian playback singer is (bleeper sounds) …I’ve started so I’ll finish…is the subject of Cornershop’s 1998 number one single “Brimful of…” what?
Correct. And at the end of that round, Mr Tayshen, you have scored ten points and no tissues. (Starts sneezing uncontrollably, drowned out by audience laughter)
I used to make use of late opening on Monday evenings, and call in on the way home from the station. I would browse through the beautifully illustrated children’s books and choose six to bring home to read to the girls. The rather stern lady checking out the books said “I don’t like Dr Seuss – it’s just playing with words.” Poetry, then.
Rachel was excited when I brought them home, and tired and impatient for dinner though I was, I loved sitting with her nestled against me on the bedroom floor, enjoying each other’s complete attention as I pointed to the words and she followed. Children’s books had become much brighter since I was a boy. There was Quentin Blake, with his wonderful, affectionate drawings of beaky, friendly people.
And Martin Waddell whose books sometimes achieve a strong emotional pull, every bit as powerful on parent as on child.
I loved watching her respond to the theatricality of the books. One simply described a walk in the country on a summer’s day, but as you turned one page there was a double page spread of a brightly coloured tractor harvesting a field, showing a brilliant blue sky, a sea of golden wheat, the cloud of dust around it, and a frenzy of birds wheeling overhead: I watched delighted as she experienced the shock and joy of turning the page to see that dramatic picture.
I included some educational books, and Rachel was keen to be educated. One was a well-written simplified guide to space and the solar system. It was thrilling to watch her bright eyes as she took it all in, asking question after question, each one showing she had understood the previous answer.
I loved these exhilarating teaching moments, aware that I would not always be able to answer Rachel’s questions, that she would some day no longer look to me for answers, and that she might one day even lose her boundless appetite for learning. The last of these, I’m glad to say, looks unlikely to happen.
Tuesday 17 October 2017, Tooting Tram and Social. Her first time on stage since a couple of things at school. She looks good but nervous. The older girl has done a few open mic nights before, and chats with her reassuringly, hugs her, helps her bring the microphone stand down. Finally the nine-piece band has finished tuning up and running sound checks and they launch into their first number, Barefoot. She sings beautifully, but keeps her movements small. The band is enthusiastically received, with help from friends and family in the audience. Apart from the other girl, her bandmates didn’t realise this was her first performance in public – she hadn’t told them so they wouldn’t fuss her.
The following May she came with me to see the Rolling Stones at London Stadium. She has never needed any lessons in stagecraft, but if she had, it was a good one. The support act was Liam Gallagher: as we entered the stadium he was in his default state of aggressive moaning.
We could see him on the big screen of course, but from a distance it took me a full five minutes to locate him in person on stage. He wore dark blue against a dark background, he stood there and barely moved. He didn’t look as if he was enjoying himself. So what chance did we have?
Liam is famously a huge Beatles fan: had he not, then, heard the story of Bruno Koschmider yelling “Mach schau! Mach schau!” (Put on a show!) to enliven the five young lads from Liverpool, passive as they played their instruments in the Kaiserkeller in Hamburg in 1960?
When the Rolling Stones came onstage, the change in mood was immediate and thrilling. Jagger, of course, still appeared a tiny figure, but he wore a shiny silver jacket and moved ceaselessly to every corner of the stage – you couldn’t miss him – and he transmitted an energy belying his 74 years to the whole stadium. When it grew dark he wore a billowing red silk shirt which glowed like a beacon. We had paid for a show, and by god we were going to get one.
That’s how you put on a show, I said, as if she needed telling. The nine-piece band she sang with worked well musically, but its members had very different personalities, and the negativity some brought to group discussions may have inhibited her stage performances. But her confidence was quietly growing with experience and positive feedback. When they played their most prestigious gig yet at a festival, other band members said “It’s 400 people, aren’t you nervous?” She replied “No, 40, 400, 4000, we play for people so we can play to more people, that’s the point. This is why we’re doing this.”
The nine piece evolved into a smaller, more flexible band which had the advantage of not needing such a large stage, and not taking so long to do its sound check. Just as important was the personal chemistry between members: they were also mates. Confident of the band’s support, her performances became freer and more energetic.
Sunday 25 August 2019, Greenbelt Festival. A large tent at this family friendly festival, mothers, fathers, children and babes in arms swaying to the music. The People Versus are closing their set with one of their most danceable numbers, Charybdis. It’s hot in the tent, but she’s singing and dancing freely, her floaty top amplifying her movements.
The band is finishing its sound checks. She’s chatting to me, quite relaxed, three or four rows back in the crowd. The announcer leaves the stage to a burst of applause, and she has to push her way through. The teasing opening riff of Like I’m Lonely/Driftwood starts up as she climbs on stage smiling and looking at ease. Now she’s on stage the show can start.
She brings down the mic and starts to move to the music. She hasn’t started singing yet and we already know we’re going to have fun. Let’s do this.
History books will tell you that From Me To You was the Beatles first UK number one. That’s not how I remember it. Rob and I were listening to Pick of the Pops on the BBC Light Programme with Alan Freeman on our radiogram in Oxhey, in March 1963. Rob was nine, I was six and a half. Cliff Richard was our hero, and we were not pleased to hear that Cliff’s Summer Holiday had been knocked off the number one spot by a noisy song called Please Please Me by some upstarts called the Beatles.
(The reason for the discrepancy is that the standard reference for chart history, The Guinness Book of Hit Singles, used Record Retailer charts, while the BBC at the time compiled its own averaged chart.)
Mum and Dad were great music lovers. Opera was their thing, but they indulged our enthusiasms. I remember being taken to see Summer Holiday at the cinema. Later Mum made a great sacrifice by taking us to see A Hard Day’s Night: the only tickets available were in the front row, and she had a terrible headache from the frantic unceasing movement. They even took us, early in 1965, to see Aladdin and his Wonderful Lamp – a panto at The London Palladium starring Cliff and the Shadows. (Oh no they didn’t…)
Rob and I were thrilled to see Cliff and the Shadows live. Mum and Dad enjoyed seeing Arthur Askey as the Widow Twankey. Dad was tickled by the gag where Hank Marvin tried and failed to scare someone by wearing a ghost mask – until he gave up and revealed his face, whereupon the victim screamed in horror.
When the Beatles, the Stones and everyone else burst onto the scene in 1963/4, Cliff was able to retain his popularity – if not his relevance – by continuing his trajectory from young rock’n’roller to family entertainer. The low point was Goodbye Sam, Hello Samantha. In doing so, he jettisoned most of the respect he once enjoyed for his early recordings, and all of his cool.
But you don’t forget your first heroes, and I retained a fondness for Cliff Richard long after he became deeply unfashionable. I was thrilled in 1969 when Cliff and Hank made what I thought was a superb record, Throw Down a Line – an apocalyptic song which Hank Marvin has said he wrote with Jimi Hendrix in mind – now that would have been something. His artistic renaissance in the 1970s produced the exquisite Miss You Nights, and his biggest US hit, Devil Woman. He could still pick a song.
I came to Move It late – understandably, as I was two when it was released. Without question, it is the first authentic rock’n’roll song produced outside the USA. Before the arrival of the Beatles, the only other undisputed non-American classic is Shakin’ All Over by Johnny Kidd and the Pirates.
Like Cliff, the Shadows became uncool during the 1960s, but Hank Marvin’s reputation was later burnished as heroes of later musical generations – Pete Townshend, Eric Clapton, Dave Gilmour, Brian May – queued up to pay their respects. Cliff, though, has found such respect harder to come by. Is that fair? When Move It was made, Hank wasn’t even in the Shadows, or the Drifters as they were called at the time.
But just listen to it, the throbbing, angry rhythm, the polite but committed and insistent vocal. Jazz critic Steve Race had written in Melody Maker “So rock’n’roll is dead, is it? All right, then. My funeral oration consists of just two words: good riddance.” He went on to say he didn’t know what the next craze would be. Ian Samwell, an early member of the Drifters, was inspired to write the song as an angry riposte: he really did want to know what could replace it. He composed the song on the top deck of a Green Line bus (the 715) on his way to Cliff’s house in Cheshunt.
It serves still as a passionate war cry and anthem for the music. Move it was first released as the B-side of the insipid Schoolboy Crush, but fortunately TV producer Jack Good heard it and insisted that Cliff should sing that one if he wanted to appear on Oh Boy! The record was flipped and reached number two in the charts.
The implication wasn’t lost on British fans. Just as Buddy Holly had shown that ordinary looking guys could become rock’n’roll stars – not just exotic godlike figures such as Elvis Presley and Little Richard – so Cliff proved you didn’t have to be American to make it. There were earlier British attempts at rock’n’roll, of course, but to properly understand the impact of Move It, what it meant to teenagers at the time, it’s worth listening to dire previous offerings like Tommy Steele’s Rock With the Caveman.
Cliff became such a fixture in British life that it’s not always appreciated how desperate he was for success and how hard he worked for it. A story about High Class Baby, his follow up to Move It, is revealing. After recording the song, he went home and cried, believing that his early success had been a fluke. “I thought that was it” he said. “It just didn’t compare in any way to Move It.” He was right about that record, but soon broke through again with Livin’ Doll and never looked back.
Many of Cliff and the Shadows’ early recordings still sound good today: rock ballads like Livin’ Doll, Travellin’ Light and The Next Time, out and out rockers like Please Don’t Tease and We Say Yeah, pop/rock songs like Bachelor Boy, Dancing Shoes and Don’t Talk to Him, and the big film themes The Young Ones, and Summer Holiday. And those two films are cheesy but still fun and full of youthful energy, in a Judy Garland/Mickey Rooney kind of way.
My wife and I had seen Cliff Richard in concert many years before, but when we heard that he was getting back with the Shadows for some 50th anniversary concerts, billed as the Final Reunion Tour, we knew we had to be there: they very rarely played together these days, and having the Shadows along would keep Cliff to his more rocky early material. I invited cousin Phil, nostalgia king and an even longer-standing Cliff fan, to join us.
Known for years as “The Peter Pan of Pop”, it was claimed that Cliff had fans from nine to ninety. In truth, there were few under fifties there. We did spot a nerdy looking 12 year old boy with his parents: I assumed he was there under duress, but later we noticed him mouthing the lyrics like a true fan.
When the lights went down, the years dropped away and we all felt like teenagers again. They opened with a pulsating We Say Yeah, and the mood for the evening was set. (A version of which Johnny Hallyday has also used to good effect to open his show). “Please sit down – you’ll only get tired” said Cliff considerately, viewing the frenzy his opening number had unleashed. The Shadows, always consummate musicians, were tight and energetic, and Cliff looked delighted to have them back on stage with him. They were all having a great time.
It was full set, stretching to three hours, and fans would struggle to think of any big hits that were left out. Cliff performed with an energy belying his 68 years. The Shadows had the stage to themselves for a while to play some of their hits, which they did with accuracy and intent – for example the cleanest, sweetest Wonderful Land you could imagine. They even threw in some trademark dance steps.
The audience had a huge helping of exactly what they wanted: it was, without doubt, the best a Cliff Richard and the Shadows gig could be. When I expressed my opinion in that way, it was sometimes greeted with a smirk, but I meant it as a high compliment. We had a wonderful time. When eventually they had run out of hits, Cliff introduced their final number by saying that when, if ever, we met again, we will still be The Young Ones. Not a dry eye in the house.
Cliff Richard has always been polite, and lacked the air of danger which characterises true rock stars. He was never going to be Mick Jagger, Iggy Pop, Freddie Mercury or Ray Davies. But he’s definitely Cliff, and he’s served up some great music over the years, and if, as he’d feared, he’d faded away straight after Move It, his legacy would still be substantial. And for people of a certain age, he’s just always been there, part of the British fabric, like David Attenborough or the Queen. We understand that you’ll never be cool. But we love you, Cliff.
When I retired, one of my tasks was to register with the local dentist. Part of the process was filling in a questionnaire, which included the question “On a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 means not at all, and 10 means extremely, how anxious are you about visiting the dentist?” I marked it an 8. The nice lady asked if I had suffered bad dental experiences. I said yes, in this very building, nearly fifty years ago.
We British have a reputation – mostly deserved, I’m afraid – for bad teeth. In America we’re famous for it. We sent over Keith Richards and David Bowie as dental ambassadors. I put this down to a generation of dentists who seemed to come from a military background, recruited in the days when physical strength was required for the job. They thought their patients should take their punishment like men.
Mr R of Rosebank was such a practitioner. He got off to a terrible start by calling Rob Bob and calling me Dick. I needed fillings. He injected local anaesthetic with such force and vigour that it was difficult to imagine it was protecting me from anything still more painful. But my imagination was given some assistance when he started drilling, with what felt like more enthusiasm than accuracy. There might have been an extraction too, my memory is probably trying to protect me.
A handful of visits to Mr R left me so traumatised that when I was of an age to arrange my own dental care, I just didn’t. I dread to think what was going on inside there. Fast forward about twenty years (I know) to the birth of our second daughter. She was born with a cleft palate, and we were told that in the coming years she would need orthodontics and oral surgery. And I realised I would have to look her in the eye and ask her to be brave and tell her it would all be worth it.
So one day in my lunch break I took the first and most difficult step: I went into the dentist and made an appointment for an initial examination. I explained to my colleague why I would soon be taking quite a lot of time away from the desk. “Really? So when did you last go to the dentist?” “Well…you remember Boney M?…”
When I at last got in the chair and opened wide the dentist must have thought she was Aladdin peering in the Cave of Wonders. There was a lot of work to do: fillings, extractions, the dreaded root canal surgery. There were many appointments over a few weeks. And it wasn’t actually that bad. They were careful and empathetic. Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t fun either, but I found that if I forced my mind to wander, the time soon passed. I also felt a bit proud of facing up to my fear, although everyone else had been seeing their dentists every six months without any fuss for decades. Before long I was able to revert to routine dental care.
Happily the team at Rosebank Dental Surgery are also first class. I am attended to by a team of gentle and skilful women, and the ghost of Mr R has been driven from the building. My dental anxiety levels have lowered: I’m down to about a 6 now. As I write this under lockdown, I’ve had to miss a hygienist’s appointment and I’ll soon miss a checkup. But don’t worry, I’ll attend those appointments when I can, and in the meantime I’m flossing and brushing like a pro. I know I’ll never have gleaming perfect white film star gnashers, but I’d like to still be eating steak to a ripe old age.