1996 and 1997: How Merrill Lynch ruined them

In our family life, 1996 was a good year. Alice was born, and our first daughter, Rachel, was two, and growing up fast. We were adjusting to life in our house in Chorleywood, having moved from north London the previous autumn.

But at work, things weren’t going so well. Merrill Lynch, the “thundering herd”, had turned its mighty power on to my cosy little domain: UK preference shares. This had been a sleepy place with modest turnover and comfortable trading margins: enough to make a decent living for the handful of people who specialised in this niche area. It had run on knowledge and contacts, and capital had played a relatively small part.

However, Merrill Lynch had world domination in mind, and surprisingly the UK preference market was part of their plans. They may have been encouraged in this by the experienced group of fixed income salesman and traders they had recently recruited. Experienced and also wealthy: most, had already made serious money from selling their share of their previous employers – London broking and jobbing firms – to large banks desperate for a slice of the City, when it was opened up by the Big Bang in 1986. Also, of course, they had benefited from decades of generally lucrative employment.

Merrill may not have given much thought to the risk appetite of prosperous employees in their fifties, especially recent recruits with no particular company loyalty. Perhaps they should have done. Their team would have been on contracts that required a large lump sum payment in the event of redundancy. So they couldn’t lose: if they took a large gamble with Merrill’s money and won, they would get fat bonuses: if they lost, they would lose their job, bank a healthy payoff and stroll off into a comfortable retirement.

So their game was on. In the small number of preference shares with relatively large issue sizes, Merrill started to make hyper-competitive prices. For example, in Bank of Scotland 9 1/4% pref, where we would perhaps have guaranteed a client or broker a price in 100,000 or 250,000 in order to work a total order of half a million or more on a three point dealing spread, they might make a half point price in a million, sometimes as many as five million. So if, say, they made clients and brokers a price of 131.5 – 132 in one million, they were offering to buy up to a million shares at 131.5p, or sell up to a million at 132p. To put this in perspective, the whole share issue was only 200m – to make such a close price in such a large size was a huge commitment.

Our modus operandi of making a margin by negotiated trade was completely redundant, now that clients could instantly get their business done elsewhere in size and at close prices. As a relatively small firm, we didn’t have the capital to compete with Merrill’s pricing: nor did we think it sensible to try. We knew that providing this spectacular level of liquidity in such a small market was unsustainable in the long run. Although typically the City judges people in the short run.

Within a few months, we had withdrawn from price making in the issues which Merrill dominated, although a couple of our competitors soldiered on. Business was very thin for a while: we were reduced to scratching around in the most arcane corners of our market to try to make a turn. There were days when we failed to book a single ticket or register any movement at all on our profit and loss account. Difficult times.

My personal life, although on its planned trajectory, didn’t help. The combination of lost sleep and the stress of being the unconfident father of a toddler and a baby meant I lacked the energy to reinvent my business to meet the competitive challenge. Also my daily commute had increased from half an hour when we lived in London to an hour and a quarter, which made it a long day.

In late 1998 some relief for us came from a newly fashionable capital instrument: “B” shares. These were devised as a means for companies to return capital to shareholders. Typically a return of capital was more tax efficient for shareholders than dividends, and “B” shares were devised as a way for shareholders to choose the timing of this receipt – by reference to prearranged repayment dates – to mitigate their tax liability.

Most shareholders accepted their payment at the first opportunity, while some will have scheduled to accept it in a subsequent tax year. But a substantial minority didn’t want to get involved with the administration of a corporate action: the small size of many individual holdings made it more efficient to sell the shares in the market than pay the corporate action fee to accept the full payment. And some larger holders simply sold rather than bothering to look at the detail, assuming that the market bid would be close to fair value.

This assumption was false. We had become aware of “B” shares following one or two dealing enquiries, so we investigated. What we found interested us deeply. Firstly, although there was a growing number of this new type of shares, no single market maker covered them as a group: they were typically taken up, probably reluctantly, by market makers in the associated equity, as an add-on service for their customers. Secondly, the market was very uncompetitive. For example, WH Smith, an unexciting but perfectly sound company, had “B” shares in issue where the highest screen bid was 25p, but with a redemption offer by the company within a few months at 50p, offering a spectacular return for the buyer, and penalising anyone careless enough to passively accept the market bid.

We immediately registered as dealers in all the “B” shares we could identify. By covering the whole market and making sure our bid prices were (just) the best, we became the natural call for brokers with shares to sell. Once we acquired the shares, we could either book a healthy profit over a few months by holding them until redemption, or take an immediate turn by offering them to a client as a quasi-deposit investment, giving an attractive yield to redemption. This wheeze helped plug the gap in our profit and loss account for a couple of years.

By late 1999 Merrill Lynch’s chickens were coming home to roost. Their team’s strategy had been to make very large and close prices, while moving those prices steadily up – not difficult in a relatively small market, if you’re prepared to spend enough money buying stock. On one occasion, after a taxation change was announced which was unambiguously bad for preference shares, Merrill continued to march their prices upwards. As they did so, naturally they acquired a further large amount of stock as investors deemed the shares unattractive to hold at the higher levels.

The combination of large holdings and rising prices appeared highly profitable, but this was unrealised profit, based on prices which they were controlling. A profit is only certain when the position is closed. I couldn’t say whether Merrill paid their team bonuses based on these paper profits – it’s hard to believe they would have been so naive, but who knows, large banks have made some very strange decisions over the years.

At any event, things must have come to a head. One day we came in to the news that Merrill had parted company with their fixed income team. They immediately stopped making prices in extravagant size – at least at the bid end – although their prices remained stubbornly high for a while, before easing slowly closer towards historically more typical levels.

I sensed they might have some unwinding to do, and over the next few months I got to know the softly spoken Scottish fellow who had been left in charge of Merrill’s preference positions. As I had hoped, one day he called us with some business: could we get a bid for eleven and a quarter million NatWest 9%?

In the sleepy backwater where I operated, I dreamt of getting an order like this. I made some calls and was able to find a buyer – albeit at a level below the prices displayed on screen – and Merrill accepted our bid. I had work to do: in the next few weeks I placed out tens of millions more of their shares with institutional investors.

Eventually the flow of this business dried up, as Merrill flattened their holdings, or at least reduced them to more comfortable levels. The screen prices were still unrealistically high, and we kept hearing reports of brokers and clients who were unable to execute their sell orders. This was an opportunity: anyone willing to make the right prices could potentially capture all the business. There were other market makers beside Merrill, but they were also compromised, presumably so long of stock that they would face heavy losses if they moved prices down to the true levels. Of course that was their problem, not ours.

We registered to once again make prices in the leading stocks. After some discussion, we opted for a wide ten point spread, bidding about fifteen points less than Merrill’s screen bid, offering at five points less, making prices in a princely 25,000. It was unusual (and bold) to publicly offer stock below their displayed bid price (called a backwardation) – we were effectively saying their prices were wrong.

The first day trading these stocks again was a nervous one. Our low prices looked out of line and initially attracted buyers: brokers came on to buy small amounts, checking that we were happy with the price – that is, we were happy to sell on a backwardation. “No problem” I replied, “We mean it, they don’t.” Easy to say, of course, but as the day went on our short positions steadily mounted at prices which, I was starting to worry, might be cheap. What if I had been wrong?

In the final hour of trading, relief arrived. A broker rang up with a few decent orders, seventy thousand of these, fifty thousand of those. “Are you happy with your bid prices?” he asked. “I’ve been trying to sell these for weeks, but no-one’s given me a bid for them.” I took all his stock and heaved a sigh of relief: we had filled our short positions, our prices had been validated, and we could carry on trading our levels with confidence.

Over the next weeks, our opposition implicitly acknowledged that we were right by slowly adjusting their prices down to our levels – one imagines at some cost – and some abandoned the preference market completely. It was a long time before we had any serious competition to worry about. Merrill, in particular would have suffered losses in clearing their positions which would horrify most firms, but which probably registered as a mere blip in their New York City headquarters.

These events came with some cost to my career: during Merrill’s aggressive and ultimately disastrous presence in the market, my department’s profits had plummeted, and my (whole company) profit share arrangement had been marked sharply down – substantially reverting to a share of our own book. This was uncomfortable at the time, although I had to remind myself that most people outside the City working in “real world” jobs – teachers, shopworkers, nurses – would still think my new lower pay rate very generous. And perhaps it was beneficial in the longer term: it left me with something still to prove. My appetite for business – and my enjoyment of it – stayed keen for many more years. The best years of my career were still ahead of me.

Over twenty years have passed since I had this unwanted close-up of a major investment bank in operation. And in case you’re wondering whether Merrill Lynch continued to make costly mistakes…oh yes. During the 2008 financial crisis they suffered huge losses from the drop in value of their mortgage portfolio of collateralized debt obligations, and they were forced to accept a takeover by Bank of America. I wasn’t too sad about that.

the end bit

yes abbey road not played it for ages, still got vinyl in the loft bought a record player ten years back won’t work CD player jumps thank god for streams I guess Maxwell what a horrible little song is this album so good? all so smooth George good rest though? fucking octopus at last best one I want you she’s so heavy turn it up that riff churns we used to watch grooves run out end of side one to know when it ends on and on it goes is this when it ends? not yet start to sweat is it this bit no no groove to watch need to sit down oh am sat down on it goes feel better turn it up a bit more here? no need glass of water right yes oh floor yes this is how it ends here comes the sun.

The Mug Protocol

A few years ago, I liked my teas and coffees in a posh china cup and saucer. It felt proper. But the the drink was too small, the larger surface area made it cool too quickly – and what is a saucer, but an extra piece of washing up? So, over the years, we have accumulated a fair collection of mugs. Each has a particular niche.

So you are invited to stay at our house for a few days – and don’t worry, the risk is low, we’re not very sociable – there are a few house rules you should be aware of. Some of our guests are super helpful, and we appreciate it, we really do. Some help Debbie with the catering, others help me with the washing up. Some do both.

I’m especially grateful for assistance in providing the coffees and teas that can seem like a continuous process. So I hope family and friends will take these comments in the constructive spirit in which they’re offered. I’m just trying to spare embarrassment all round. In this spirit I offer the following guide.

  • David Hockney Royal Academy – primary coffee mug for Debbie
  • Kings and Queens – first string coffee mug for Rik
  • Winnie-the-Pooh – cheap mug. Alice nicked it from Greenbelt Festival. Possible future toothbrush mug
  • Florence + The Machine – Alice’s, of course. Matt finish. Never used, probably too precious
Put it down. Now.
  • Japanese Spitz – Alice’s coffee mug. Gold-rimmed. Do not use dishwasher
  • Royal Opera House Musicians – in theory for anyone, in practice for Rik’s coffee. Faded, the poor fellow has quite lost his tuba
  • Periodic Table – large mug. You may use this. Ideal for tea if you’re really thirsty. Lettering faded. Incomplete, they keep inventing new elements
  • Pack Leader Cesar Millan – Debbie bought it but Alice uses it. Tea
  • British Prime Ministers – notionally Rachel’s but you may use. Good for a very large tea
  • Ricky Road Run 2009 (red) – chunky, suitable for outdoor use…gardeners, workmen if they should be so lucky
  • Ricky Road Run 2010 (red) – chunky, suitable for outdoor use…gardeners, workmen if they should be so lucky
  • Ricky Road Run 2017 (white) – same as the two above, of course, why should it be any different? Do you think we’re crazy?
  • White Hellebore – big and chunky. You may use this mug. Works for a large tea, if you’re not dainty. Also a good shape for storing half-tins of plum tomatoes or baked beans in the fridge
  • Holly – ditto but vaguely festive
  • Art History – notionally Alice’s but you may use. Good for a very large tea
  • Ladybirds – curved shape, slightly larger. Debbie’s mug, a present from Rachel. Debbie only, tea or coffee
  • Doctor Who Experience – Alice’s mug of choice for tea. Don’t you dare!
  • Tea Society – Alice’s, from her friend Fran. Alice’s tea only
  • Seagull – Debbie’s first choice for tea
Most amusing. But a swine to drink from
  • Half Cup – novelty present from Rik to Debbie for that “half cup” of coffee she wants at breakfast time. Semicircular shape of top makes drinking awkward – safest to drink from the narrow angle. Probably on its way to the charity shop before long
  • I Like Dogs More Than People – Alice’s. Obviously. Don’t touch, grrr!
  • “Rik” – pottery mug acquired in the Lake District c.1989, customised with Rik’s name. Quite small, rather scratchy, Rik very rarely uses it. And you shouldn’t, either
  • Shakespeare’s Plays – a Christmas present for Rachel, from which she can drink her hot chocolate. You may, however, use this if she’s not here
  • Green Tortoise – given to Alice by a bandmate, shortly before they kicked him out. Do what you like.
  • Edward Lear Stripy Bird – top tier coffee mug for Debbie
  • Eden Project Coffee – Debbie bought it, Rik annexed it. Coffee only. Of course.
What many dishwash will do
  • Windsor Castle – very faded, many dishwash. Debbie bought it, Rik annexed it. Bit of a pattern emerging…
  • National Trust Puffin – chunky small mug. Hangs well on hook. This is what Debbie means when she asks for a small coffee
  • Puffins (by Alison Vickery) – Debbie’s coffee mugs first team
  • Van Gogh Museum Wheatfield With Crows – too narrow, now serving as a toothbrush mug after previous officeholder died in action. Looking nervous.
  • Van Gogh Museum Starry Night – too narrow, not used much. Sister mug (above) serving as toothbrush mug. Also looking nervous.
  • Daddilybee Lord of the Fields – Debbie ordered it from her own design and gave it to Rik. Quite narrow, much loved but rarely used
  • Three Peaks of Yorkshire Club – Rik’s, for climbing Pen-y-ghent, Whernside and Ingleborough within twelve hours. Except he didn’t, he took longer over it, but they still let him buy the mug. Gold-rimmed, slightly too large, rarely used and you shouldn’t either
  • York – Rik’s really, but you may. Hangs on the hook, for some reason
  • Women Who Changed the World – a Christmas present for Rachel, from which she can drink her hot chocolate. Just like Shakespeare’s plays. You should listen.
Putting this in the dishwasher is a matter of the utmost gravity
  • Isaac Newton – Debbie’s coffee mugs first team. Do not put this in the dishwasher, you will not be forgiven
  • Catch of the Day – Debbie bought this in Norfolk, but found it fractionally too large. So Rik nicked it, and it’s now his default tea mug, unless he’s really thirsty
  • Edward Lear Runcible Bird – first choice mug for Rik’s coffee

I realise that’s quite a lot for you to remember, so I’ll have this list laminated and bound into a handy brochure, to keep by the kettle. I know you’ll appreciate it. It’s the least I can do to make our guests feel at ease.

Matthew and Son

Up at eight, you can’t be late

You lucky, lucky bastard. I used to set my alarm for quarter to six when I commuted to London. I’ve always imagined Matthew and Son as a mucky old factory, probably in the north of England, one that L S Lowry might have painted. Cat took the name from his tailor, Henry Matthews, but the lyric goes on to mention “the files in your head”. Perhaps it’s an office where accountants or lawyers toil. Or maybe a hand tool factory.

In fairness, Steven Demetre Georgiou, known to the world as Cat Stevens – later as Yusuf Islam – was only 18 in 1967 when this song was a big hit in the UK. Perhaps he didn’t experience work drudgery himself before he became a pop star. Although his girlfriend did, according to his later comment:

“I had a girlfriend, and she was working for this big firm, and I didn’t like the way that she had to spend so much of her time working… There was a bit of social comment there about people being slaves to other people.” So this shot across the bows of capitalism was inspired primarily by resentment of his girlfriend’s employer – and only incidentally by a sense of injustice. It is not recorded whether this is the same girlfriend whom he loved no more than his dog.

For Matthew and Son,

Matthew hasn’t called his company Aviva plc or G4S: no, he’s happy to put his name above the door, and be judged on his record by customers and employees. And employees’ boyfriends, it seems. Matthew has put his personal reputation (and his son’s) on the line. Clearly a man of integrity. (Or possibly a narcissistic t*** like Trump.)

he won’t wait.
Watch them run down to platform one
And the eight-thirty train to Matthew and Son.

Well, I used to run down to platform one for the six-forty three train, that’s one hour and forty-seven minutes earlier, matey. And I don’t know how far you live from the station, but I do wonder whether thirty minutes is enough time for you to wake up/go to the loo/shave if applicable/shower/get dressed/have a nutritious breakfast/brush your teeth/make up if applicable/gather your stuff/get to platform one. All the things you should do to arrive at Matthew & Son presentable and ready for work.

Matthew and Son, the work’s never done,

That’s what work is, right? If all the work was done, you wouldn’t have a job any more, would you?

there’s always something new.

Stimulating work then.

The files in your head, you take them to bed, you’re never ever through.

Right, let’s assume it’s not a hand tool factory.

And they’ve been working all day

All day?

All day

No employer would expect less.

There’s a five minute break and that’s all you take,
For a cup of cold coffee and a piece of cake.

Cake? You get cake? Do Amazon delivery drivers get free cake? Luxury!

He’s got people who’ve been working for fifty years

A steady employer. A job for life. Probably a decent pension scheme. How many young people entering the job market in 2021 can expect that sort of loyalty from their employers? Uber pension, anyone?

No one asks for more money ‘cause nobody dares

There’s a whole world out there, guys. Go work on someone else’s files. Retrain. Emigrate.

Even though they’re pretty low and their rent’s in arrears

This doesn’t necessarily mean that Matthew and Son don’t pay a decent salary. Perhaps their employees are profligate.

Matthew and Son,
Matthew and Son…
etc

Cat was a precocious talent, and this song still sounds fresh. But he couldn’t have imagined how, half a century later, the march of Thatcherism and Reaganomics – followed by the rise of the gig economy – would make the workers at Matthew and Son look like the lucky ones. If they were recruiting today, applicants would be queueing around the block. Or rather, they’d crash the servers.

Matthew, and his Son – or by now his Great Grandchildren – are just trying to run a business. Give them a break. But make it a twenty minute break. And make sure the coffee’s hot.

Songwriter: Cat Stevens
Matthew and Son lyrics © Cat Music Ltd.

Father to the man

No doubt I should have been learning more (or at least something) about the Phoenix Park murders, or rereading the turgid pages of Le Baiser au lépreux: I felt a continuous dull guilt that I was neglecting my studies. I wasn’t using my teenage years to take my first fumbling steps towards love, or taking advantage of the days when a small seventeen year-old could buy a pint of bitter unchallenged, as long as he had the money: no, instead I spent many hours buying and selling coins to improve my collection using ads in Exchange and Mart. I must have been fascinating company.

Only later did I understand that indulging my passion for trading had given me good practice for my City career. Luckily I didn’t completely ignore my studies, as I might not have been offered my entry level job at a stockbroking firm without a degree of some sort.

Sometimes your teenage interests suggest – if not always clearly – your direction in adult life. Ten years ago I met up with old school friends Charles and Richard. I remembered Charles at school had enjoyed tinkering with machines: he had become a railway engineer, specialising, when called upon, in crash forensics. Richard, I recalled, used to relish an argument on a point of detail – he had become a lawyer. I was now a City trader. We raised a glass to square pegs in square holes. Sometimes the pieces fit.

But life at school isn’t always a reliable predictor of adult life. I don’t imagine Jem, for example, would have forecast that I would grow into someone who runs marathons for the fun of it.

His name was Jeremy, but we all called him Jem. Perhaps we should have spelled that Gem: he was small and bright – younger than the official age group for our year, but sent ahead because he was clever – also friendly and funny. We were in different forms, but I met him on my first day at Watford Grammar when we found ourselves washing our hands next to each other in the luxurious toilet annexe. Two older boys were using the facilities, and one called out “Hey you two, come over here!” (Relax, this does not go badly.)

We went over there, and were asked to stand with our backs to the wall. “Blimey! You fellows are small!”. One produced a piece of chalk and marked our heights on the wall. He stood back and pronounced Jem narrowly the “winner” – i.e. the shortest boy in the school, he reckoned – and shook our hands. We looked at each other and shrugged, relieved that all the stories we had heard at primary school of blood curdling initiation rites had boiled down to this mild and good-natured ceremony.

I can’t speak for Jem, but I saw my small stature as a badge of honour: I was confident of my academic ability, and gained my self worth from that. In the following years Jem and I would often contend to be top of the year in the fortnightly maths tests – until, that is, my understanding of the subject hit a calculus brick wall.

About five years later, we were shivering in Cassiobury Park on a Wednesday afternoon waiting to begin a cross country run. These runs were almost universally unpopular. They took place in the winter when the pitches were too waterlogged for rugby or hockey: as a result it was usually cold, wet, and very muddy. There was the fearsome Jacotts Hill, which seemed to appear in every route, and the ritual instruction to keep to the path as you crossed the golf course – as if, were you slain by a ball, the knowledge that you had been righteous might comfort you as you drew your last breath.

I was competitive. Most boys didn’t try, or didn’t admit to trying – it wasn’t cool, and those who enjoyed sport preferred chasing a ball around. Many slowed to a walk as soon as they were out of sight of the teacher. But I did my honest best, and struggled: typically placing about 80th out of 120 boys, when few ahead of me cared, and probably none behind me. I plainly had no talent for this.

So I no longer put much effort into these runs, and on this day Jem – no great enthusiast either – and I decided to jog round together. It started off well: we set off about three quarters down the field, and settled into a relaxed jog/walk which left enough breath for conversation. But after a mile or so we noticed that we had lost sight of the Athlete ahead of us, and when we came to the next junction we realised that neither of us had been paying attention when the sports master had been outlining the route.

How lost can you get in a town park? Well there’s nearly 200 acres of Cassiobury Park, and over the next forty minutes we did our best. I might have felt a little annoyance: after all, Jem lived on the Cassiobury estate, dammit. Well I guess he didn’t spend his weekends exploring the park. Our navigation skills were roughly equal. By the time we found the finish line, the master (it might have been “Beery”) had given up and gone home, assuming he had miscounted, or perhaps indifferent to the fate of the boys in his charge.

So had I asked Jem, as we trudged shivering back to the changing rooms, do you think that in late middle age I’ll run through the very same muddy park regularly, often on cold rainy days, half way through a 21-mile training run, because I want to? Will I run fifteen marathons on thirteen different courses? Then he would have looked at me pityingly, assuming that the trauma of our wanderings in the park had scrambled my brain.

So what changed? In my mid thirties I took stock of my health and realised that I wasn’t getting much exercise: I tried running and became addicted. I found it therapeutic to apply myself to something so simple yet so difficult: as I ran, knots would untangle in my head. And there was the question of control: now running was a choice, I could enjoy it. I wonder if Jem ever caught the running bug?

I’m pretty sure that I haven’t acquired any new talent for running over the past half century. At least I no longer have to worry about navigation when I’m in a big city marathon: there are always plenty of people to follow. But it’s a sport where tenacity and sheer bloody-mindedness count for a lot, and if those are talents, I claim them.

28,103,832 drips

Our kitchen tap drips. We first noticed this some time around 23rd March 2020 – the day when Boris Johnson went on TV, straining to project gravitas as he announced the first national lockdown – so as I write, that’s exactly a year ago.

Now, if our boiler packed in during February, we’d get it sorted, pronto, pandemic or not. Skybox? We’d roll the dice and have a man in to fix it within hours. WiFi? Totally take our chances on a potential lethally infectious engineer, to avoid being reduced to Conversation, reading “books” and playing Scrabble®️.

But a dripping tap, that’s trivial, surely? “Ah, Rik, caught Covid from the plumber and died. All because he got annoyed by a dripping tap and didn’t know how to fix it.” Not a speech anyone wants to hear at their funeral. Oh, right, well you know what I mean.

Also, we had a workaround. I discovered that if I moved the tap over the curve of the sink the dripping became inaudible, at least to my ageing ears. So I could live with it, sort of, if I remembered to move the tap back to the edge of the sink after every use.

I’ve just spent a happy minute counting 84 drips. It’s accelerated sharply over the year: I estimate that the average “drip rate” over the period was 53.47 drips per minute, seven days a week, day and night. No wonder Betty refuses to sleep in the kitchen. (For clarity, Betty is our dog. Not the housemaid.)

So, 53.47 drips x 60 minutes x 24 hours x 365 days = 28,103,832 drips since 23 March 2020. That could drive a man mad. At least I’ve kept my sanity, right?

The tap

Just how much water has this wasted? And how much has it cost me? In ten minutes, I collected 195 millilitres. So, 0.195 litres x 6 (per hour) x 24 hours x 365 days x 53.47/84 (to adjust for the average drip rate) = 6,524.1 litres since Boris spoke on the telly. For older readers, that’s 11,480.81 pints.

My water is charged at £0.9848 per cubic metre, or £0.0009848 per litre, so this dripping tap has cost me £0.0009848 x 6,524.1 = £6.42. Ok it won’t break the bank. But, I’m afraid, shockingly wasteful: my water usage over the last 12-month billing period was 210 cubic metres. So the dripping tap was 3.1% of my total consumption – and that includes brushing my teeth, teas and coffees, my monthly shower, everything.

Should I have tried to fix it? How hard can it be? No doubt very simple if you know what you’re doing. But I don’t, you see. Before I got as far as researching the task online, an image settled in my brain: the image of a plumber in waders shaking his head, and saying “Oh dear, what have you done here?” – a nightmarish echo of Mr Vale, the man who tried to teach me woodwork, gathering the class around: “Come and see what Edwards has done.” No, best not to try. I’ll pay the £6.42, thanks.

O jabjous day! Callooh! Callay!

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.

Smokey’s 49-year vacation

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 of the sublime Tracks 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 unintentionally 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.

Room 101

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.

Misterfuckingbluesky

See what they’ve done there? It’s blue!

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.

The arguments are circular. Lack of evidence supporting their theory is cited as proof of a cover-up, while evidence against it is ignored or dismissed as fabricated. Discussion is futile. Some people say the moon landings were a hoax. Buzz Aldrin begs to differ. Some people say Shakespeare didn’t write Shakespeare. (I think he did.) Elvis is still alive but Paul McCartney died in 1966. The 9/11 attacks were planned by the US government…and so on. Some people think the earth is flat, for god’s sake.

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.

The Sneeze

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!

Llanuwchllyn

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.

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 Jones

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.

A small section of Arthur’s legendary family tree

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.

Diolch, Llanuwchllyn!

The Copper Bowl

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.

From Chorleywood Magazine

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.

“Yes. That’s the kind of man he is.”

Up to the job

(From Accountancy magazine, February 1982)

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 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.

Come join the U3A

(To the tune of Cabaret by Liza Minnelli)

What good is sitting
Alone in your room?
You’re never too old to play.
Come join the U3A, old chum,
Come join the U3A.

We find that it’s fitting
To learn how to Zoom
‘cause now it’s the only way
To come to the U3A, old chum,
Come to the U3A.

Come taste the tea,
Come hear the talk
Come sing your song
Start educating;
Right this way,
Your group is waiting.

A friend of mine took Wine
Appreciation
And quickly learned the art of
Degustation
She got to know her
Merlot from her Claret
And now she runs
A winery in Sarratt

A fellow thought he’d go and join
The Striders
He walked eight miles and then had
Seven ciders
And when they said “There’s
Four more miles you know”
He just laughed and told
Them where to go

A lady in our road was
Learning Scrabble
But sad to say it soon became
A rabble
They threw her on the street
Because you see
In every single game
She put down qi

Another chap joined Politics
Discussion
But someone started arguing
in Russian
And though they tried they
Couldn’t seem to mute him
Then they found his name was
Mr Putin

My neighbour went to learn
The ukelele
But when he tried to sing it was
A fail-ee
Instead of sounding
Confident and warm he
Always came out very like
George Formby

No use permitting
Some prophet of doom
To wipe every smile away
Come to the U3A old chum
Come to the U3A!

Please don’t be quitting
We’re gonna resume
After this holiday
Come join the U3A, old chum
Welcome to U3A, old chum,
And I love the U3A!

(Debbie and Rik Edwards, July 2020)

My Short but Glorious Rugby Career

“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.

Palin and Holmes: looking back to greatness

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.

The Excellent Trap

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.

Navigation Aid

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.

Totality

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.

It was Wednesday 29th June 1927, the day of the first total solar eclipse visible from mainland Britain since 1724. The whole family was up at 1am to see Glyn off: the motor coach had to be in Preston before six. Aelwyn felt the sense of injustice rise again within him.

“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.

Cryptic Music Quiz: difficulty level – extreme

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!

Which song…

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)

50) …extols reverse festive ambulation? (1956)