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 alternative to 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 lazy old gents wandering in to to the office at ten from the Waterloo train, disappearing for lunch between one and four. Many were lazy, some were plain stupid. Steadily they were being replaced by sharp- witted lads from Essex, grammar school boys and even the odd graduate.

So when Mr Thompson made his offer, I didn’t hesitate. Given the calibre of some of my colleagues, it shouldn’t be difficult to make a mark. My knowledge of the stocks was comprehensive after the stats training, but the sales aspect of the job didn’t come easily: for a long time I was nervous of making a fool of myself on the telephone.

The partners must have thought the safest course was to assign me accounts where the firm was doing little business, so I couldn’t do much damage, and might improve our revenue there. After a slow start, ambition eventually overcame fear. One lunchtime when I was alone, minding the shop, it was as if a switch had been flicked in my head: suddenly I knew what to do. I made four sales calls, and two of them were successful. The two partners on the desk came back to a couple of decent dealing slips they hadn’t expected.

But the day I really got my feet under the desk was in 1983, on 3rd August which happens to be my birthday. A fund manager from a previously barren account which I had been carefully (but so far unsuccessfully) cultivating – supplying a stream of what I hoped was helpful information and analysis – called me up out of the blue. “Are you busy this morning?’ she asked. “Oh, one or two things on” I lied. She ignored my reply and pressed on. “Well, you will be now. Have you got a pen and paper? I want to sell these.” And she read out a long list of holdings. Over the day we got all the business done. Now I knew I could do the job.

Of course, the problem for the firm in assigning its dead accounts to the new guy was that I now knew that the revenue I had generated attached to me personally as much as it did to the firm. This made me confident of what I was worth to my employer.

If a person gives you something, it is instinctive to thank them. But when Mr Thompson handed me a bonus slip representing an amount of money I could only have dreamt of three years earlier – and of course exceeded the social value of my work by a huge factor – I resisted the impulse to thank him. I simply nodded acknowledgement and said “OK.” Because the bonus was clearly a miserly percentage of the increased revenue I had brought in.

This was Thatcher’s decade, the age of the yuppie. Before long, opportunity knocked again in the shape of an approach from a rival firm. “Big Bang” was on the horizon, and broking firms, buoyed with cash from US and other banks, were aggressively recruiting. When Simon & Coates (soon to trade as Chase Manhattan) named the salary they were proposing to pay me, I needed time to consider it. About three seconds. I tried to contain my excitement. “I think that sounds reasonable” I said. I was on my way. All thanks to that rather dull article.

Come join the U3A

(To the tune of Cabaret)

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)

Losing My Religion

Mum used to say that it was about Rob and me getting experience of religion, being exposed to it so we could make up her own mind, and we believed her, at least until we had young children of her own. Then we understood it was really about getting the parents a brief respite every Sunday from noisy kids.

As a six year old, I didn’t enjoy Bushey & Oxhey Methodist Sunday School: one morning on the car journey there, in my apprehensive mood I pressed my offering – a brass threepenny bit – so hard into my leg that it left the clear impression of its portcullis on my thigh.

Three years later, Rickmansworth Crusader class was much more fun. The leaders were younger and jollier, the choruses we sang were short and lively, and I became good friends with some of the boys – more so when some of them turned up in my class in the first year of Watford Grammar.

Crusaders had fun activities. There was poddox, a speedier form of cricket – perhaps exclusive to Crusaders – where each wicket consisted of two stumps with one bail, and a bowler was posted at each end to lob the ball underarm in alternating directions. The batters wielded rounders bats: if they hit the ball they had to run, and there were no boundaries. The heavy bat could propel the small ball a long way across Scotsbridge playing field, and it wasn’t unusual to score eight or nine off a single hit. Poddox was a great way to spend a Friday evening in the summer.

There were excursions like the trip to see Cliff Richard (wow!) perform at a gospel concert, like the five-a-side football tournament. Most of all there were the summer Crusader camps, usually by the seaside.

The days were full of fun and games and new friendships: after dinner was a prayer meeting where, tired and happy, we were receptive to hearing about God’s love. Then an evening walk followed by late night cocoa, and the magic of sleeping under canvas. (Crusaders are still with us today, having rebranded as Urban Saints in 2007.)

The experience of feeling safe and happy away from home and family was magical and intoxicating. The night I returned home, after volunteering to do the washing up I told Mum and Dad that I had accepted Jesus into my heart. I meant it, and at the age of twelve I regarded myself as a Christian. I tried diligently to read the prescribed Bible passage every night, and to say my prayers.

Watford Grammar was not diverse: in my year of about 120 boys there was one Asian and two Jewish boys. There was also one Catholic in our class who was excused daily assembly, which included hymns and prayers: the rest were all of white Christian Protestant heritage. But seeds of doubt were soon being sown in my mind.

Our Divinity master was Mr (later Dr) Raper, a scholarly but approachable man. When the class had got over sniggering at his name, he started teaching us about each different religion in turn. By the end of term, he had taken us through the basic principles of Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism, Judaism, Shinto and Sikhism, and offered objective comparisons with Christianity.

(Dr Raper was later to raise his head above the parapet during the pupil rebellion against a new school rule banning long hair in the summer of 1971. In a morning assembly he parsed the word education, arguing that education should bring pupils out rather than up. How many boys understood this coded message of support is unclear, but it wasn’t lost on the headmaster, Mr L K Turner – known to us as Trog. Raper had gone by the next term, and I still wonder whether he was firing a parting shot because he was already on his way, or if this incident caused the headmaster to encourage him to move on.)

My Christian faith should have led me to reject the other religions as simply wrong. But I regarded myself as rational, and this posed a dilemma. Having seen the contradictions in the beliefs and customs of the major religions set out so clearly, favouring one over the others seemed merely a tribal choice, like supporting a particular football team. Surely the only reasonable conclusion was that they must all be mistaken?

My faith was further shaken by my Scripture teacher the following year. Mr Lister, who for unknown reasons had the nickname “Fanny”, was terrifying. An austere, thin figure, he was probably in his sixties, although he appeared at least ninety to us: he had white hair and a white moustache, and was one of the handful of staff who persisted in wearing a gown. In my mind he was an older version of Bunter’s Mr Quelch.

Our Scripture lesson was first period on Thursday morning, which made for a restless Wednesday night. Lister would set us a passage of the Bible to learn – maybe fifteen or twenty verses – and set us a ten question test the following week. The passage would be from the Authorised Version, usually from the Old Testament, and full of obscure and difficult names. If there was any spiritual content, I never discerned it.

The pass mark for the test was (I think) 7/10, and you could get a detention for failing. Of course we all crammed the text into our heads on the way to school on Thursday morning, so it was all completely forgotten by the weekend. We shouldn’t blame God if some people dedicated to spreading His word are uninspiring or downright scary, but I felt my faith weakening again.

Science lessons also encouraged religious scepticism: physics and astronomy, chemistry and biology – especially natural selection – pointed to the origins of the universe, the Earth, and life having natural origins and could explain our world without envisaging a supreme creator.

The coup de grâce was administered at Crusaders when I was fourteen or fifteen, a trivial blow which proved decisive only because my commitment to Jesus was already wavering. One of the junior leaders, a fellow in his early twenties, told a story one Sunday afternoon: he had been with friends, on a road trip in the United States, when their car ran out of gas, and they pulled up at the side of the road. They prayed for God to help them, and soon a friendly motorist stopped and gave them enough gas to get them to the next filling station.

This story was offered as proof of God’s love, and the power of prayer. It seemed absurd that His priority, with so much pain and suffering in the world, would be to deliver these young Englishmen from this annoying inconvenience. Of course this was just one man’s daft story, but years of growing scepticism welled up into a wholesale rejection of Christianity, and I stopped attending Crusaders. The decision may also have been encouraged by a wish to reclaim my Sunday afternoons.

I embraced atheism with the certainty of youth, and for a while adopted an aggressively anti-religious stance. This has softened over the years: I have met many kind and thoughtful people for whom faith clearly provided support and inspiration. Christ’s teachings are wonderful, but I don’t believe in him as the Son of God. I certainly dislike the angry modern strain of atheism which carries hints of the zealotry and intolerance which, ironically, characterise the nastiest aspects of some faiths.

A friend of mine is a lifelong Christian, who was once told by an associate that his faith was misguided, false and selfish. What must that have felt like? Imagine having a fragile ornament in your house, which you love and think beautiful. Then a guest comes to your house and says “I’ve done you a favour, I smashed that hideous ornament of yours.” What right did he have to do that?

My friend’s experience set me thinking about Mr Raper. He hadn’t, as far as I know, set out to turn us into atheists, but he did provide a framework which encouraged us to question our beliefs. Had the outcome been positive for me? Had I acquired truth at the cost of faith and a large portion of hope? Would I have been happier, or a better person, had I remained in that apparent fool’s paradise?

Pascal’s Wager points out that the cost of believing in God if there is none might be some wasted effort in adjusting one’s lifestyle and in attending church – while the cost of not believing in God if He does exist could be eternal damnation. Pascal concluded that it was rational for a doubter to behave as if there was a God.

In this spirit, I reserve the right to allow emotion to override reason, and to be born again late in life. But God, please could you allow me a bit of notice?

The Two Ronnies – rediscovered Mastermind sketch

(Mastermind theme – ‘Approaching Menace’)

Ronnie (as Magnus Magnusson): Our next contender is Mr Sten Ulysses Tayshen. Mr Tayshen, you have two minutes on general knowledge. Your time starts…now. Who was the Dutch graphic artist born in 1898, famous for his mathematically inspired woodcuts, lithographs, and mezzotints, specialising in impossible objects?

Other Ronnie (as contender, sneezing continually): Escher!

Correct. Name the American rapper born with the surname Raymond who has sold over eighty million records worldwide.

Usher!

Correct. Which Anglo-American novelist, playwright, screenwriter, autobiographer, and diarist wrote “Goodbye to Berlin” which later inspired the musical “Cabaret”

Isherwood!

Correct. In Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice”, what was Shylock’s religion?

A Jew!

Correct. What is the surname of Jane, actress, cake decorating expert and one time girlfriend of Paul McCartney?

Asher!

Correct. The street newspaper founded by John Bird and Gordon Roddick in September 1991 for sale by homeless people in London was called the Big…what?

Issue!

Correct. Which river rises in the North York Moors and reaches the North Sea at Whitby?

Esk!

Correct. What is the german word, meaning health, often said after someone sneezes?

Achoo!

Gesundheit. In the Beano comic, what is the name of Dennis the Menace’s dog?

Gnasher!

Correct. Which six letter word describes foods are those that conform to the Jewish dietary regulations of kashrut?

Kosher!

Correct. The Inuit and the Yupik substantially make up which group of people, based around the northern polar regions?

Eskimo!

Correct. An Indian playback singer is (bleeper sounds) …I’ve started so I’ll finish…is the subject of Cornershop’s 1998 number one single “Brimful of…” what?

Asha!

Correct. And at the end of that round, Mr Tayshen, you have scored ten points and no tissues. (Starts sneezing uncontrollably, drowned out by audience laughter)

Library Night

I used to make use of late opening on Monday evenings, and call in on the way home from the station. I would browse through the beautifully illustrated children’s books and choose six to bring home to read to the girls. The rather stern lady checking out the books said “I don’t like Dr Seuss – it’s just playing with words.” Poetry, then.

Rachel was excited when I brought them home, and tired and impatient for dinner though I was, I loved sitting with her nestled against me on the bedroom floor, enjoying each other’s complete attention as I pointed to the words and she followed. Children’s books had become much brighter since I was a boy. There was Quentin Blake, with his wonderful, affectionate drawings of beaky, friendly people.

And Martin Waddell whose books sometimes achieve a strong emotional pull, every bit as powerful on parent as on child.

I loved watching her respond to the theatricality of the books. One simply described a walk in the country on a summer’s day, but as you turned one page there was a double page spread of a brightly coloured tractor harvesting a field, showing a brilliant blue sky, a sea of golden wheat, the cloud of dust around it, and a frenzy of birds wheeling overhead: I watched delighted as she experienced the shock and joy of turning the page to see that dramatic picture.

I included some educational books, and Rachel was keen to be educated. One was a well-written simplified guide to space and the solar system. It was thrilling to watch her bright eyes as she took it all in, asking question after question, each one showing she had understood the previous answer.

I loved these exhilarating teaching moments, aware that I would not always be able to answer Rachel’s questions, that she would some day no longer look to me for answers, and that she might one day even lose her boundless appetite for learning. The last of these, I’m glad to say, looks unlikely to happen.

Let’s do this

Tuesday 17 October 2017, Tooting Tram and Social. Her first time on stage since a couple of things at school. She looks good but nervous. The older girl has done a few open mic nights before, and chats with her reassuringly, hugs her, helps her bring the microphone stand down. Finally the nine-piece band has finished tuning up and running sound checks and they launch into their first number, Barefoot. She sings beautifully, but keeps her movements small. The band is enthusiastically received, with help from friends and family in the audience. Apart from the other girl, her bandmates didn’t realise this was her first performance in public – she hadn’t told them so they wouldn’t fuss her.

The following May she came with me to see the Rolling Stones at London Stadium. She has never needed any lessons in stagecraft, but if she had, it was a good one. The support act was Liam Gallagher: as we entered the stadium he was in his default state of aggressive moaning.

We could see him on the big screen of course, but from a distance it took me a full five minutes to locate him in person on stage. He wore dark blue against a dark background, he stood there and barely moved. He didn’t look as if he was enjoying himself. So what chance did we have?

Liam is famously a huge Beatles fan: had he not, then, heard the story of Bruno Koschmider yelling “Mach schau! Mach schau!” (Put on a show!) to enliven the five young lads from Liverpool, passive as they played their instruments in the Kaiserkeller in Hamburg in 1960?

When the Rolling Stones came onstage, the change in mood was immediate and thrilling. Jagger, of course, still appeared a tiny figure, but he wore a shiny silver jacket and moved ceaselessly to every corner of the stage – you couldn’t miss him – and he transmitted an energy belying his 74 years to the whole stadium.  When it grew dark he wore a billowing red silk shirt which glowed like a beacon.  We had paid for a show, and by god we were going to get one.

That’s how you put on a show, I said, as if she needed telling. The nine-piece band she sang with worked well musically, but its members had very different personalities, and the negativity some brought to group discussions may have inhibited her stage performances. But her confidence was quietly growing with experience and positive feedback. When they played their most prestigious gig yet at a festival, other band members said “It’s 400 people, aren’t you nervous?”  She replied “No, 40, 400, 4000, we play for people so we can play to more people, that’s the point. This is why we’re doing this.”

The nine piece evolved into a smaller, more flexible band which had the advantage of not needing such a large stage, and not taking so long to do its sound check. Just as important was the personal chemistry between members: they were also mates. Confident of the band’s support, her performances became freer and more energetic.

Sunday 25 August 2019, Greenbelt Festival. A large tent at this family friendly festival, mothers, fathers, children and babes in arms swaying to the music. The People Versus are closing their set with one of their most danceable numbers, Charybdis. It’s hot in the tent, but she’s singing and dancing freely, her floaty top amplifying her movements.

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Friday 29 November 2019, EP launch at the Jericho Tavern, Oxford. The People Versus return to their home patch, and the pub venue is sold out with friends, family and fans. The merchandise table is ticking over nicely selling tee shirts, sweaters and CDs.

The band is finishing its sound checks. She’s chatting to me, quite relaxed, three or four rows back in the crowd. The announcer leaves the stage to a burst of applause, and she has to push her way through. The teasing opening riff of Like I’m Lonely/Driftwood starts up as she climbs on stage smiling and looking at ease.  Now she’s on stage the show can start.

She brings down the mic and starts to move to the music. She hasn’t started singing yet and we already know we’re going to have fun. Let’s do this.

Cliff Richard and The Shadows, O2 Arena, 26 September 2009

History books will tell you that From Me To You was the Beatles first UK number one. That’s not how I remember it. Rob and I were listening to Pick of the Pops on the BBC Light Programme with Alan Freeman on our radiogram in Oxhey, in March 1963. Rob was nine, I was six and a half. Cliff Richard was our hero, and we were not pleased to hear that Cliff’s Summer Holiday had been knocked off the number one spot by a noisy song called Please Please Me by some upstarts called the Beatles.

(The reason for the discrepancy is that the standard reference for chart history, The Guinness Book of Hit Singles, used Record Retailer charts, while the BBC at the time compiled its own averaged chart.)

Mum and Dad were great music lovers. Opera was their thing, but they indulged our enthusiasms. I remember being taken to see Summer Holiday at the cinema. Later Mum made a great sacrifice by taking us to see A Hard Day’s Night: the only tickets available were in the front row, and she had a terrible headache from the frantic unceasing movement. They even took us, early in 1965, to see Aladdin and his Wonderful Lamp – a panto at The London Palladium starring Cliff and the Shadows. (Oh no they didn’t…)

Rob and I were thrilled to see Cliff and the Shadows live. Mum and Dad enjoyed seeing Arthur Askey as the Widow Twankey. Dad was tickled by the gag where Hank Marvin tried and failed to scare someone by wearing a ghost mask – until he gave up and revealed his face, whereupon the victim screamed in horror.

When the Beatles, the Stones and everyone else burst onto the scene in 1963/4, Cliff was able to retain his popularity – if not his relevance – by continuing his trajectory from young rock’n’roller to family entertainer. The low point was Goodbye Sam, Hello Samantha. In doing so, he jettisoned most of the respect he once enjoyed for his early recordings, and all of his cool.

But you don’t forget your first heroes, and I retained a fondness for Cliff Richard long after he became deeply unfashionable. I was thrilled in 1969 when Cliff and Hank made what I thought was a superb record, Throw Down a Line – an apocalyptic song which Hank Marvin has said he wrote with Jimi Hendrix in mind – now that would have been something. His artistic renaissance in the 1970s produced the exquisite Miss You Nights, and his biggest US hit, Devil Woman. He could still pick a song.

*******

I came to Move It late – understandably, as I was two when it was released. Without question, it is the first authentic rock’n’roll song produced outside the USA. Before the arrival of the Beatles, the only other undisputed non-American classic is Shakin’ All Over by Johnny Kidd and the Pirates.

Like Cliff, the Shadows became uncool during the 1960s, but Hank Marvin’s reputation was later burnished as heroes of later musical generations – Pete Townshend, Eric Clapton, Dave Gilmour, Brian May – queued up to pay their respects. Cliff, though, has found such respect harder to come by. Is that fair? When Move It was made, Hank wasn’t even in the Shadows, or the Drifters as they were called at the time.

But just listen to it, the throbbing, angry rhythm, the polite but committed and insistent vocal. Jazz critic Steve Race had written in Melody Maker “So rock’n’roll is dead, is it? All right, then. My funeral oration consists of just two words: good riddance.” He went on to say he didn’t know what the next craze would be. Ian Samwell, an early member of the Drifters, was inspired to write the song as an angry riposte: he really did want to know what could replace it. He composed the song on the top deck of a Green Line bus (the 715) on his way to Cliff’s house in Cheshunt.

It serves still as a passionate war cry and anthem for the music. Move it was first released as the B-side of the insipid Schoolboy Crush, but fortunately TV producer Jack Good heard it and insisted that Cliff should sing that one if he wanted to appear on Oh Boy! The record was flipped and reached number two in the charts.

The implication wasn’t lost on British fans. Just as Buddy Holly had shown that ordinary looking guys could become rock’n’roll stars – not just exotic godlike figures such as Elvis Presley and Little Richard – so Cliff proved you didn’t have to be American to make it. There were earlier British attempts at rock’n’roll, of course, but to properly understand the impact of Move It, what it meant to teenagers at the time, it’s worth listening to dire previous offerings like Tommy Steele’s Rock With the Caveman.

Cliff became such a fixture in British life that it’s not always appreciated how desperate he was for success and how hard he worked for it. A story about High Class Baby, his follow up to Move It, is revealing. After recording the song, he went home and cried, believing that his early success had been a fluke. “I thought that was it” he said. “It just didn’t compare in any way to Move It.” He was right about that record, but soon broke through again with Livin’ Doll and never looked back.

Many of Cliff and the Shadows’ early recordings still sound good today: rock ballads like Livin’ Doll, Travellin’ Light and The Next Time, out and out rockers like Please Don’t Tease and We Say Yeah, pop/rock songs like Bachelor Boy, Dancing Shoes and Don’t Talk to Him, and the big film themes The Young Ones, and Summer Holiday. And those two films are cheesy but still fun and full of youthful energy, in a Judy Garland/Mickey Rooney kind of way.

My wife and I had seen Cliff Richard in concert many years before, but when we heard that he was getting back with the Shadows for some 50th anniversary concerts, billed as the Final Reunion Tour, we knew we had to be there: they very rarely played together these days, and having the Shadows along would keep Cliff to his more rocky early material. I invited cousin Phil, nostalgia king and an even longer-standing Cliff fan, to join us.

Known for years as “The Peter Pan of Pop”, it was claimed that Cliff had fans from nine to ninety. In truth, there were few under fifties there. We did spot a nerdy looking 12 year old boy with his parents: I assumed he was there under duress, but later we noticed him mouthing the lyrics like a true fan.

When the lights went down, the years dropped away and we all felt like teenagers again. They opened with a pulsating We Say Yeah, and the mood for the evening was set. (A version of which Johnny Hallyday has also used to good effect to open his show). “Please sit down – you’ll only get tired” said Cliff considerately, viewing the frenzy his opening number had unleashed. The Shadows, always consummate musicians, were tight and energetic, and Cliff looked delighted to have them back on stage with him. They were all having a great time.

It was full set, stretching to three hours, and fans would struggle to think of any big hits that were left out. Cliff performed with an energy belying his 68 years. The Shadows had the stage to themselves for a while to play some of their hits, which they did with accuracy and intent – for example the cleanest, sweetest Wonderful Land you could imagine. They even threw in some trademark dance steps.

The audience had a huge helping of exactly what they wanted: it was, without doubt, the best a Cliff Richard and the Shadows gig could be. When I expressed my opinion in that way, it was sometimes greeted with a smirk, but I meant it as a high compliment. We had a wonderful time. When eventually they had run out of hits, Cliff introduced their final number by saying that when, if ever, we met again, we will still be The Young Ones. Not a dry eye in the house.

Cliff Richard has always been polite, and lacked the air of danger which characterises true rock stars. He was never going to be Mick Jagger, Iggy Pop, Freddie Mercury or Ray Davies. But he’s definitely Cliff, and he’s served up some great music over the years, and if, as he’d feared, he’d faded away straight after Move It, his legacy would still be substantial. And for people of a certain age, he’s just always been there, part of the British fabric, like David Attenborough or the Queen. We understand that you’ll never be cool. But we love you, Cliff.

Set List

  • We Say Yeah
  • In the Country
  • Gee Whiz It’s You
  • A Voice in the Wilderness
  • Livin’ Doll
  • Dancing Shoes
  • I’m the Lonely One
  • A Girl Like You
  • Do You Wanna Dance?
  • Shadoogie
  • Wonderful Land
  • The Savage
  • Sleepwalk
  • High Class Baby
  • I Could Easily Fall (In Love With You)
  • Willie and the Hand Jive
  • Sea Cruise
  • C’mon Everybody
  • Dynamite
  • Lucky Lips
  • Travellin’ Light
  • Time Drags By
  • All Shook Up
  • Please Don’t Tease
  • Apache
  • Foot Tapper
  • Atlantis
  • F.B.I.
  • I Love You
  • The Next Time
  • Don’t Talk to Him
  • On the Beach
  • Summer Holiday
  • Bachelor Boy
  • Nine Times Out of Ten
  • It’ll Be Me
  • Visions
  • Move It (encore)
  • Singing the Blues
  • The Young Ones

Odontophobia

When I retired, one of my tasks was to register with the local dentist. Part of the process was filling in a questionnaire, which included the question “On a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 means not at all, and 10 means extremely, how anxious are you about visiting the dentist?” I marked it an 8. The nice lady asked if I had suffered bad dental experiences. I said yes, in this very building, nearly fifty years ago.


We British have a reputation – mostly deserved, I’m afraid – for bad teeth. In America we’re famous for it. We sent over Keith Richards

and David Bowie

as dental ambassadors. I put this down to a generation of dentists who seemed to come from a military background, recruited in the days when physical strength was required for the job. They thought their patients should take their punishment like men.

Mr R of Rosebank was such a practitioner. He got off to a terrible start by calling Rob Bob and calling me Dick. I needed fillings. He injected local anaesthetic with such force and vigour that it was difficult to imagine it was protecting me from anything still more painful. But my imagination was given some assistance when he started drilling, with what felt like more enthusiasm than accuracy. There might have been an extraction too, my memory is probably trying to protect me.

A handful of visits to Mr R left me so traumatised that when I was of an age to arrange my own dental care, I just didn’t. I dread to think what was going on inside there. Fast forward about twenty years (I know) to the birth of our second daughter. She was born with a cleft palate, and we were told that in the coming years she would need orthodontics and oral surgery. And I realised I would have to look her in the eye and ask her to be brave and tell her it would all be worth it.

So one day in my lunch break I took the first and most difficult step: I went into the dentist and made an appointment for an initial examination. I explained to my colleague why I would soon be taking quite a lot of time away from the desk. “Really? So when did you last go to the dentist?” “Well…you remember Boney M?…”

When I at last got in the chair and opened wide the dentist must have thought she was Aladdin peering in the Cave of Wonders. There was a lot of work to do: fillings, extractions, root canal surgery. There were many appointments over a few weeks. And it wasn’t actually that bad. They were careful and empathetic. Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t fun either, but I found that if I forced my mind to wander, the time soon passed. I also felt a bit proud of facing up to my fear, although everyone else had been seeing their dentists every six months without any fuss for decades. Before long I was able to revert to routine dental care.

Happily the team at Rosebank Dental Surgery are also first class. I am attended to by a team of gentle and skilful women, and the ghost of Mr R has been driven from the building. My dental anxiety levels have lowered: I’m down to about a 6 now. As I write this under lockdown, I’ve had to miss a hygienist’s appointment and I’ll soon miss a checkup. But don’t worry, I’ll attend those appointments when I can, and in the meantime I’m flossing and brushing like a pro. I know I’ll never have gleaming perfect white film star gnashers, but I’d like to still be eating steak to a ripe old age.

Sallie

At about 5pm on February 1st 1971, Rob and I got off the 335 bus and started walking home up the rough surface of Park Avenue. We were surprised to see Mum and Dad walking to meet us. We knew something had happened. When we reached them, they told us that Sallie – our grandma, or Nana as we called her – had died. We would soon learn much more about her.

Sallie and her husband Jack had lived at 22 Malpas Road in Wallasey, a neat little road with low brick walls and tiled front paths. Mum would often take Rob and me there on the train for a week in the summer holidays: Dad’s miserly allowance of holiday precluded him from making the trip. I remember it as a modest but tidy house. There were few toys there, but I remember Jack finding a strong magnet and some paper clips which kept us amused for some time. Mum would often take us to the beach at New Brighton: once I remember her getting us home in a violent thunderstorm. She was probably more scared than we were. Mum would be sure to arrange to meet up in Liverpool with her best friend Speff, who sealed the affection of her godchildren with generous presents.

In 1963 our Dad’s mother, known to us as Nain, fell ill. Mum and Dad planned to move from Oxhey to a larger house in Chorleywood, intending to bring Nain and Taid – Dad’s parents – from Dolgellau to live with us. But Nain died in December, and when our move went through early the next year, Taid decided he would rather stay in Wales. It was decided to invite our other grandparents, Sallie and Jack instead, and they arrived some time in the summer of 1964. Soon after we got a dachshund, named Tumbi after the dachshund she had owned in Wallasey, in turn named after a dog Philip had encountered on service in India.

Chorleywood Tumbi

Mum was a qualified nurse and a dutiful daughter, and although both her parents were in good health, she was no doubt motivated by a wish to be sure they were properly cared for in their old age. But it probably didn’t hurt that they could also help to look after the children: we would have been about eleven and eight years old.

Sallie was a small, warm and cuddly woman with soft features. Her hair had been white for many years. In contrast to the shy Jack, she was chatty and sociable. She was always vague about her age – I don’t for example recall an eightieth birthday celebration – and about the date and number of their wedding anniversaries. Later we would find out why.

But I know that she was 77 when they came to live with us, and she had lived long enough and been through enough that she no longer cared – if she ever did – what people thought of her. She could be blunt to the point of rudeness, and made instant judgements about people on very little information, but was seldom wrong.

On being told that the man engaged to her niece was a lay preacher, she opined “Lay preachers! Hypocrites, the lot of them!”

On meeting the charming and pretty girlfriend Rob brought home, Sallie offered her view to Mum, at high volume: “A shallow girl!”

She was older than Jack, and once told Mum that marriages were better when the woman is older.  I wondered what Mum, five years younger than Dad, was supposed to say to that.

Here are some of Sallie’s sayings:

“Drink plenty water!”
“I’ll believe you, thousands wouldn’t!”
“Would I thump!” (as in “would I hell!”)

“Stir it and stump it, and blow your own trumpet, or trust me, you haven’t a chance!” (From Gilbert and Sullivan’s Ruddigore)
“Go on Kath, it won’t hurt the boy!” (when being an indulgent grandma).
“Can’t stand the man!” when the wrong person appeared on television.

Here are some of the things Sallie did:

She sat rocking her chair, passing comment on the television news.
She drank tea from her favourite floral design china cup and saucer.
She washed her hair using rainwater collected in a metal pail, because she didn’t like using our hard water.
She put her false teeth in a glass of water with Steradent by her bed every night.
She talked politics with Mrs Caradine when she came for tea, especially at election time. (Both were strong labour supporters.)
She walked Tumbi through the woods and over Chorleywood common.
She squashed chocolates between her thumb and forefinger to test if they were hard or soft. (luckily she liked the soft ones).
She set a fire in the dustbin when the contents were overflowing.
She surreptitiously fed Tumbi with cake at tea time and scraps from her plate at dinner time, thus encouraging the dog’s appalling table manners.
She knitted jumpers for Rob and me.
She smoked the occasional cigarette, always with the appearance of a novice smoker and a guilty schoolgirl. Very occasional, compared to Mum’s forty a day.

Here are some of the people and things Sallie liked:

Harold Wilson (She was very excited to go to hear him speak in Watford)
Pears Soap
Harry Worth
Dachshunds, preferably black and tan
Danny Kaye
Songs of Praise
Wordsworth
An occasional sherry
Rose’s Lime Jelly
Tennyson
George Eliot

Here are some of the people and things Sallie did not like

The Rolling Stones (“dirty!”)
Jimmy Savile (“horrible man!” – my god, how right she was)
The Queen Mother (“waving all the time, with that silly grin on her face!”)
Loud music coming from our bedroom (“thump thump thump – it sounds like the washing machine! They all sound the same!”)
Edward Heath

Sallie’s natural sociability no doubt eased her transition to life down south, although Jack sometimes seemed ill at ease. Life in our home was harmonious for a few years: Sallie made cakes, knitted, read books and drank tea. Jack, who had been a ship’s carpenter, made beautiful and useful things out of wood, and carried out the more skilful part of the work in building a swimming pool in our back garden.

In 1968 Jack became ill with arteriosclerosis, and he was moved to the downstairs living room where Sallie and Mum nursed him with dedication. This must have been physically and emotionally exhausting for both mother and daughter, and they may have felt some relief when his struggle ended.

Sallie outlived her husband by two years, a period I remember as turbulent. Mum didn’t enjoy sharing her kitchen with Sallie – perhaps jealous of her more confident cake baking skills. Rob recalls a ferocious argument when Sallie secretly baked a sponge cake and stashed it under her bed. Mum was upset at the suggestion that her cakes weren’t good enough.

For Mum the combination of friction with her mother, the arrival of the menopause, an overactive thyroid and differences with Rob – now going through a lively adolescence – could make an explosive mixture. Dad, Tumbi and I tried to keep our heads down.

The day Sallie died, our cleaning lady Mrs Galloway, known to us as “Gorgeous Gus” found her in her favourite rocking chair, with Tumbi at her feet.

Written by Kath and Aelwyn

After Jack died, Sallie told Mum part of their history which she hadn’t shared before, and when Sallie died, Mum in turn shared it with Rob and me, now 17 and 14. Jack had not been her first husband: she had previously been married to David, known as Davy. Her older brother Tom, fighting in the Great War, met Jack and brought him home to meet his family, and Sallie must have taken a fancy to him. She left Davy and went to live with Jack, causing quite a scandal. Her divorce from Davy took some years to come through, and Mum told us that her parents were married between the birth of her brother Philip and her own birth.

I found it difficult to picture my kindly white-haired grandma getting up to these shenanigans, but Rob and I enjoyed the romance of the story and imagined the handsome young Jack rescuing Sallie from Davy’s evil clutches.


Sarah Emily Cooper was born on 19 March 1887 in Chirk, just inside Wales. Her father John Cooper was a brick and tile maker who had moved there from the Potteries in Staffordshire.

John Cooper, in his Besses o’ th’ Barn Band uniform

Sallie had two older brothers, Dick and Tom, and an older sister Bella. When Sallie was just fifteen months old, her mother Alice died of typhoid fever. John was left with four children to care for, and it appears that Alice’s mother Sarah came to help out. But she developed cancer of the womb, and it might have been with her encouragement that Alice‘s younger sister Edie moved in – probably in the early 1890s – and became John’s common law wife. They couldn’t be officially wed, because until 1907 it was illegal for a widower to marry his deceased wife’s sister.

(This prohibition arose from canon law, which regarded brothers-in-law and sisters-in-law as siblings, and hence viewed sex between them as immoral. From the 1860s onwards there was a campaign to get this archaic law repealed, along with the corresponding law prohibiting a widow from marrying her deceased husband’s brother. This became such a perennial theme that Gilbert and Sullivan satirised it in Iolanthe, in which the Queen of the Fairies sings:

He shall prick that annual blister
Marriage with deceased wife’s sister.
)

Aelwyn on John Cooper (1997)

Edie had two children of her own from her first marriage, and it seems there was no room for the two younger girls with their father and their stepmother/auntie. Bella was sent to live with her aunt Annie and her husband John Stanford, a prosperous couple in Wrexham. Sallie was not so lucky. She and her brothers were sent to live with their Uncle Tom – Alice’s brother, and his sister – her auntie Emily, who was disabled, and worked as a seamstress.

So before she was seven, Sallie had lost her mother, been sent away from her father, and separated from her closest sibling, Bella. The three children were now living with an uncle and auntie who may well have resented their new responsibilities. By all accounts, hers was not a happy childhood.

Tom never married. He was a coalminer, and apparently a heavy drinker. Sallie is said to have hated him. One story is that Tom would walk for miles to reach England go to the pub – at the time pubs in Wales were closed by law on Sundays – and his route back took him over the Chirk Aqueduct on the Llangollen Canal, perhaps arriving home in a foul mood. Mum said Sallie used to pray for him to fall drunkenly to his death.

In 1910 at the age of 23 she married Davy Hughes, described as a terracotta model maker. Surprisingly the 1911 census shows them both living with Tom and Emily, when they might have had better options. Family stories do not support the evil persona Rob and I had invented for Davy, instead painting him as sweet natured and gentle, happy to give Sallie’s niece Marjorie a ride on his bike.

Sallie and Davy had no children. Perhaps they were happy together for a while, but when her brother Tom came back from the war and introduced his friend, Sallie must have seen something in Jack that won her over.

Sallie’s brother Tom, with Jack. Taken during WW1

In 1920 she left Davy for Jack. This was not an easy choice for her. Her behaviour was regarded as scandalous, and was frowned upon by some in her own family. But Bella was supportive, even at the cost of fierce arguments with her husband Ernest, and the two sisters remained close until Bella’s death in 1956. Davy sued for divorce, and the papers, describing events of a hundred years ago, are interesting reading.

I now see Chester and Runcorn in a new light.

Sallie and Jack set up home together: Philip was born in 1922, and Kath (my Mum) in 1925. Kath was so small at birth that the midwife doubted her chances of survival, and prepared the couple for bad news.

Sallie and Kath

The divorce was a lengthy process, and was not finalised until January 1927. Two weeks later when they married, Sallie gave her age as 34, shaving off five years, and perhaps Jack never knew her true age. Hence her reticence on the subject.

Sallie and Jack

Years later when Jack died, Sallie must have decided that Philip and Kath should hear the story of her first marriage from her, rather than perhaps from their older cousins Marjorie and Mollie. Kath now understood Sallie’s vagueness about their wedding date. But Sallie still didn’t quite tell her the full story: in her later years Kath always believed that she was born after her parents were married, and this seemed important to her in an old-fashioned way. Perhaps Sallie was sparing her feelings.

It appears that Sallie and Jack tried hard to conceal their “scandalous” history from their children – not, I imagine, out of shame – it was just love – but to protect Philip and Kath from feeling any stigma. According to her niece Maureen, Sallie burned all her old photographs, presumably to prevent her children finding them and asking awkward questions.

A couple of years ago, my daughter drew my attention to an intriguing dedication inside a volume of Tennyson’s poems which we had passed on to her.

Why would Jack dedicate the book to his “wife” Sallie in 1919, when she was still married to Davy and living with him? Perhaps he was promising Sallie that he would marry her when he could. But probably this inscription was added or amended retrospectively to deflect questions about the date of their marriage.

Without question, their life was tough, and Jack often struggled to find work in the shipyards during the depression. But they worked hard and were frugal, and my Mum’s stories from childhood suggested little money but no shortage of love and care. Sallie loved reading, and set much store in the value of education. This attitude bore rich fruit, especially in Philip, who became a Professor of English Literature and a world renowned authority on Shakespeare.

Sallie and Philip

By the time of my first memories of visiting Sallie and Jack, they seemed settled and content. As Sallie lived with us for seven years – and because she had a strong personality – she is the grandparent I recall most vividly. She was ruthless when she encountered dishonesty or pretension, and – at least at the age I knew her – made no effort to be tactful. She made rapid judgements about people, but was fiercely loyal to friends and family. She was a warm and kind person, and a loving and much loved grandma. I never knew how much she’d been through.

Buzzworld-X

Once upon a time, there was a fellow called Mr Blobby.  He was bulbous and pink with big yellow spots, and back in the 1990s he was very popular for a while.  He would knock things over and mess things up, repeating his catchphrase “blobby blobby blobby”.  Some people thought he was hilarious but other people thought he was just very annoying.  He was often on the television, and even had a number one record, cleverly called “Mr Blobby.”

His daddy, Noel, thought so much of Mr Blobby that he decided it would be a great idea to build a special Blobby theme park, and he did.  For a while people flocked to see Crinkley Bottom in Somerset, to marvel at Mr Blobby’s house, Dunblobbin, and laugh at the antics of actors taking turns in the Blobby costume.

But soon the novelty wore off and the visitors stopped coming. The moss and weeds invaded Dunblobbin, and it stood neglected and forgotten.

Until one day a man in a suit came by, and decided to buy the ruined park. He had a plan.

***********

The man in a suit was called Slater, a property man.  Blobby park was tacky and dilapidated but it sat on an attractive site with excellent transport connections.  His plans needed more space, and he had quietly bought up large pieces of land around the old site.  Also he recognised talent, and had heard about Dean Costello.

The French might call him an enfant terrible, the Germans might call him a wunderkind.  Just 29 years old, flamboyant and louche, Costello had already started to transform the theme park world.  Beginning from a junior position at Disney, he had turned around sagging visitor numbers at Disneyland Paris by devising exciting new attractions and by adding new twists to old favourites.  Disney had copied his ideas to their other parks with great success, and Costello had been well rewarded.

But he felt he had outgrown the Company, and the Company, becoming wary of his increasingly ambitious and edgy ideas – some of which they felt were unsuitable for a family attraction – didn’t argue.  So Costello parted from Disney, quite wealthy thank you very much, but now he was starting to get bored.  So the two men went into partnership: Slater would bring his property savvy and arrange the finance, while Costello would design the park.

They called it Buzzworld-X.  It wasn’t for children or young families: there would be a minimum age of 16 for admission, 18 for the numerous bars and some of the rides.  This would be a place where teenagers and young adults would want to come: professionals with money to spend, stag and hen parties.  A destination where you could spend two or three days, and would stay for a couple of nights in onsite hotels.  Costello, liberated from the constraints of Disney, set to work with relish on designing high-octane attractions.  

The park opened in a blaze of publicity, and the guests on that first weekend had never experienced anything like it.  For example, have you ever ridden the Tower of Terror?  The Terror is supposed to arise from sitting down in a seat, clipped in with a safety harness, as an elevator pretended to plummet in a scheduled and carefully managed drop.  

Buzzworld-X’s Death Drop was different –  Costello wanted to give them the fright of their lives.  He had specified a tower tall enough for a three second freefall drop.  The lucky punters were given ferocious health warnings and made to sign a blood-curdling waiver.  No seats, no seatbelts.  They were taken up to a great height in a theatrically creaky lift, by dustily uniformed bellhops who were clearly part of the show.  Nothing happened for a full five minutes, although some conspicuous signals had been given: the bellhops started exchanging nervous glances.  A couple of security men came in and started conferring in anxious whispers.  

After a while the mood among the guests turned from nervous anticipation to genuine fear, and one of the security men moved the bellhops aside and began an announcement:  “Excuse me ladies and gentlemen, we have been advised there is an issue with this attraction.  May we ask…”

There was a loud wrenching sound, the lift lurched to one side and suddenly plummeted, in a way that did not feel controlled at all.  At that moment, most of the customers believed they were about to die.  There were enough sightlines that they could see ground level approaching at speed, but they didn’t know there was a deep subterranean chamber where the fall would be cushioned.

The park roller coasters were ramped up to the maximum g-force fit and healthy guests could stand: anyone admitting to the mildest condition was excluded. Mechanical and hologram technology was harnessed to completely persuade riders that their car was about to hit a solid brick wall at 70 miles per hour.

The guests were usually too terrified to enjoy the attractions at the time, but in retrospect, buoyed by relief at their survival, realised they had actually had a wonderful time, and told all their friends that yes, they really must go.  Soon Buzzworld-X was booked out at weekends, busy all through the week.

Some of the attractions were sex or alcohol themed, and the tabloid press was soon raging against this “depraved, decadent and dangerous” park.  Of course the bad publicity only made people want to visit even more.  Kids rushed to go as soon as they turned sixteen: it became a rite of passage.

Inevitably there were casualties.  There were heart attacks and seizures, injuries as guests, in their terror, tried to escape.  One woman leapt to her death, believing she was about to be consumed by the flames of Hellfire Hall.  Unsurprisingly these incidents were more frequent than at more sedate adventure parks, but guests seemed happy to accept the risk that came with the extra thrills: indeed the sense of real danger only seemed to pull the punters in.  Buzzworld-X made a big feature – and quite a lot of money – out of selling life insurance as an add-on to the tickets.

Costello’s proudest creation, though, was Gun Battle.  You took your seat in a wild west style steam train, cow catcher and all, which trundled through a creaky wooden town.  You peered, unimpressed at actors playing out a stagey gunfight.  Suddenly a group of hooded men with genuine looking modern weapons stormed in and appeared to shoot the cowboys, who collapsed with copious blood pouring from their wounds. 

Thus far you might have believed you were watching the scheduled attraction.  Then the gunmen mounted the stage and started aiming into the train, and several of the passengers – perhaps including the one sitting next to you – then collapsed in a pool of blood.  You weren’t to know that these were park employees, posing as typical customers, paid to pretend to die several times a day.  More than once, serious injuries were caused by the stampede for the exits.

********

The first summer had exceeded their most optimistic projections, and bankers were besieging Slater with offers of finance for expansion. One Friday evening in September, Slater arrived at the park to treat Costello to dinner at the resort’s swankiest restaurant, said to be in the running for a Michelin rosette.  Without waiting to be asked, the waiter brought a bottle of Dom Perignon to their table.  The two men felt pretty good as they sipped their champagne and sampled their amuse-bouches.  

“You’ve done a fantastic job Dino” said Slater, waving his arms expansively.  “How do you get all these crazy ideas?”

“Oh, they just…come into my head…”

“But you have them so well trained!  I saw those gun dudes just outside…they’re pretty damned convincing!  If I didn’t know better…”

“Gun dudes?”

“You know, from Gun Battle.”  Costello continued to look blank.

Gun Battle’s closed until Sunday.  We had to give it a deep clean.”

“Then who on earth…”  But Costello was no longer listening.  He was staring towards the entrance to the restaurant.  Slater followed his gaze and they flung themselves under the table.

The Picture

I hadn’t thought about it for years. After our dad died, my brother and I were performing the melancholy task of sorting through the stuff in his garage. Dad hadn’t driven for the last few years, and had sold his car, so we had used the garage to store old furniture and other things he no longer needed. An upholstered armchair doesn’t look its best after doing time in a garage, so this and most other contents were soon sorted onto the pile for the house clearance people. But there was a box of papers and pictures – some framed – which caught my eye, and I took it home with me to sort through at leisure.

My grandfather Jack – my Mum’s father – had enjoyed painting, and there were a number of his paintings there. I flicked through them, until a rural scene in a battered frame suddenly seized my attention. I was instantly back at my childhood home, where the picture had hung in our lounge. A canal runs under a bridge: a large oak tree grows on the bank beyond. Tiny figures descending a track add a cartoonish touch – a man and his dog, the man with something long over his shoulder, perhaps a gun, a fishing rod or a spade. It is annotated:

Red Bridge – Chirk ‘56. John Brockbank

Jack was not a man who liked to blow his own trumpet, so I take it either that he was proud of this painting, or that perhaps it was a gift to my mother who might have asked him to sign it. Either way, I’m glad he did.

The painting is pleasant and carefully executed, but not especially distinctive, apart from one detail which hooked into my memory and confirmed that this was indeed the picture I remembered. Through the small arch of the bridge, Jack had painted two bushes, either side of the stream. To my childish eye this had looked like two people in a bubble car, and even after I had inspected it closely, I could never quite shake this impression. And now, perhaps fifty years later, I was looking once more upon the bubble-car picture.

Chirk is in Wales, just on the border. Jack had no personal connection with the place, except that his wife Sallie had grown up there. In 1956 they were living in Wallasey, on the Wirral, some fifty miles away, but they didn’t drive. I try to imagine the day. Perhaps my parents, who lived in Irby in Cheshire at the time, took Sallie and Jack to Chirk for a picnic – possibly a nostalgic trip at Sallie’s request. Rob would have been nearly three, me a bump in my mother’s tummy. Or perhaps their son Philip came for a visit from Cambridge with his wife Doreen and baby Jonathan: Philip was restless and enjoyed trips out. I can imagine Sallie catching up with friends in town while Jack, never at ease socially, elected to remain on the riverbank with his sketchbook.

I had the painting re-framed and it now hangs in our dining room.  I had been hoping to try to find the Red Bridge – Chirk on a trip to north Wales my wife and I have planned in September: but as I write in the third week of the Coronavirus lockdown, it is looking doubtful whether we can go this year. And then, when I posted the painting in the Chirk History Facebook group – in the hope of finding its location – I was told the sad news that the bridge, on the Llangollen Canal, was destroyed in the early 1970s, and that the tree came down a few years ago.

Ah well, I still have the painting. And a lovely fellow from the Facebook group offered to take some pictures of the site on his walk and send them through.

The scene today from Jack’s viewpoint. (Phil Roberts)

The remnants of the Red Bridge. (Phil Roberts)

And I’m told the bridge used to look just as Jack had painted it.

Lockdown Diary: part 2

Saturday 4 April – Day 12

Well I never said I was going to write every day. Yesterday I went down to Chorleywood to get the shopping, which has become a nerve wracking experience. This is what a butcher’s queue looks like now:

That looked like a good half-hour queue, so I decided to try again next time.

Comparisons with wartime are facile and melodramatic: those of us lucky to be away from the front line are being told to sit on our sofas, not to go into battle.  But when exercising or shopping, every person starts to look like a loaded gun.  Every case of Coronavirus is a game of Russian roulette – and the older you are, the fewer chambers there are in the cylinder.

Here are a few of the words and phrases which have shot to prominence in 2020:

Coronavirus 
COVID-19
Social distancing 
Lockdown (which used to be something that happened on Pointless)
Showing mild symptoms
Personal protection equipment 
Underlying health condition
Tested positive 
Trump idiocy
Self-isolation
Zoom
Exit strategy
Flattening the curve
Furlough
(One or two of these may have gained currency before 2020).
The good weather is back today, so we took the opportunity to sit in the garden.  Yesterday evening the BBC weatherman forecast a warm and sunny weekend in tones reminiscent of gathering doom.  They really don’t want us to go out in it, that wouldn’t be helpful.  But our country lane has never been so busy with families out walking, and will only get busier in the next few weeks as the famous Philipshill Wood bluebells come into flower.  A walk in the woods is no longer a relaxing experience.
Sunday 5 April – Day 13
A beautiful day as forecast, another opportunity to chill in the garden.
This evening we watched the Queen’s broadcast.  What a pro!  She strikes exactly the right note of solemnity and empathy.  Of course it’s easier for her in some ways – we can’t all choose which palace to be locked down in – but she is 93 years old, her husband is 98 years old, even her son is 71 years old and contracted Coronavirus.  Her position affords her no protection.
Soon after, the news breaks that Boris Johnson has been admitted to hospital, having exhibited persistent symptoms.  We are told this is for “routine tests” but we know there is nothing routine about this virus.  It is a sombre moment.  Social media is full of posts saying things like “Can’t stand the man, but wishing him a speedy recovery.”  Keyboard warriors can’t take even the briefest of holidays, it seems.
We fork out £15 to see Jane Austen’s Emma on Sky.  Its cinema release was scuppered, so they need to get their money back somehow.
Monday 6 April – Day 14
Stock markets rally this morning on evidence that quarantine measures in Italy and Spain may be working.  My feeling is that it is way too early to declare any victory – medical or economic – over the virus until we have a plausible exit strategy.  Coronavirus is likely to cast a huge shadow on economic activity for a long time.  Some newspapers have criticised the government for its refusal to name a date when lockdown might be relaxed, but surely we should wait and learn from countries where events are ahead of us – China, Italy, Spain – before deciding our strategy.
This evening we learn that Boris Johnson has gone into intensive care.  This should not have been a surprise, as many Coronavirus hospital admissions are for that very purpose, but the news is still shocking.  The good wishes expressed across the political spectrum confirm the sense of national crisis.  Boris Johnson’s experience will also serve as a wake up call to many people who have not considered themselves threatened by the virus: at 55 he is not especially old, and seemed in robust good health.  If he is not safe, none of us is safe.
Tuesday 7 April – Day 15
As the household’s designated shopper, I’m following instructions and shopping as infrequently as possible.  Here is my top ten list of food and drink items in descending order of their power to force me into the supermarket:
Milk
Bread
Meat
Granny Smiths apples
Red wine
McVities plain chocolate digestive biscuits
Tropicana orange juice
Lindt and Sprungli 70% dark chocolate 
Heineken lager
Nescafé Gold Blend
Bear with me please, I have sponsors to think about.  I have left pasta off the list because we seem to be well stocked, and rice because our Tesco delivery included an enormous bag of basmati rice: the medium sized bags were all gone, so we had to choose between tiny and huge.  We’re on our last bottle of milk, so we’ve decided that I’ll brave Waitrose in Rickmansworth tomorrow lunchtime or afternoon.  Looking forward to it already.
Here’s Debbie and Betty – because, why not?