Stop the lazy bad guy signalling

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My second complaint arises from my modest height. Remember Shrek? The villain of the piece is Lord Farquaad: he’s certainly a nasty piece of work. He has no control over his height, but that doesn’t save him from being repeatedly short-shamed by the good guys. Farquaad is just one example of the stereotypical short, sneaky guy, characterised by actors like Danny DeVito. To be fair, this is part of a long-established tradition: over 200 years ago it suited British interests to paint Napoleon as comically small, although it seems he was of average height.

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

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

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

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

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

Rami Malek as Safin (picture: Universal/MGM)

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

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

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

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

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

Survey monkeys

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Votes for Members

Sir Nicholas Goodison

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Numbered just 000030

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sir Nicholas tries to face down the rebels

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fun in the Pugwash Lounge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

…stuck with the rotten things for life.

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

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

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

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

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

Philately will get you nowhere

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“…under British protection”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Betty

“Abbie” on our first visit to Dogs Trust

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

However:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Half an hour after Debbie has driven off

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

Let Me Take You Down…

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

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

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

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

(Watford Observer, October 11, 1968)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

25 best Edward Lear limericks

(This piece also appears in the Edward Lear Trail)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So intolerant. But so polite.

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

“Small”

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

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

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

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

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

Laconic indeed.

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

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

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

Cracker

‘e was a good buooy!

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

Pauli

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

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

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

Oil painting by Alice Edwards

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

Puppy in a bucket!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cracker tries Canicross

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Great Aunt Vida

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(insert random number here) best ever cartoons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two visits to the Apollo Theater, Harlem

With Debbie

When we visited New York City in May 2007, my wife and daughters proposed a shopping trip to Bloomingdale’s. We agreed that everyone would have a better time if I did something else instead, and there was something I very much wanted to do. I’m a huge fan of music, and much of the music I love is by African-American artists. I was thrilled to learn that you could visit and tour the historic Apollo Theater in Harlem, so I took a yellow taxi to West 125th Street.

A charming fellow called Billy Mitchell welcomed the guests on the tour, with shout-outs for those of us who had travelled from overseas. He showed a montage of photos on the wall of many of the stars who had appeared there: the famous names just kept on coming. There was a large party of black schoolchildren, a few adult black Americans, and just one other white person – like me, an Englishman. As we filed in to our seats, I found myself in line behind him. I took my seat in a different row, not wishing to create a tiny white ghetto.

Billy is a fascinating character. One of fourteen children, he had a tough upbringing, spending much time in foster care away from his parents. I suspect, like many other small guys, he learned to live on his wits and his sense of humour. Hard work and a likeable and engaging personality probably helped too. He first got involved with the Apollo in 1965 at the age of 15: his mother had sent him to borrow some money from his aunt, who lived near the theater, and he was waiting outside when owner Frank Schiffman said “Hey kid, you want to make some money?” The job turned out to be running errands for Berry Gordy, who had brought his Motown show to the Apollo.

The show that night featured the Supremes, the Temptations, the Four Tops, Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder. Billy has been associated with the Apollo in some or other capacity ever since, and is now the official Apollo historian and tour guide.

Billy filled us in on the history of the theater. It opened in 1913 as Hurtig & Seamon’s New Burlesque Theater. Surprisingly, in view of the building’s later history, there was a strict “Whites Only” policy: in the past Harlem (formerly New Haarlem) had been largely a Dutch and Jewish quarter. After Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia banned burlesque in New York, the theater reopened as the Apollo in 1934, catering to the black community. In 1983 the theater was protected by the conferral of state and city landmark status.

Billy told the story of the famous Tree of Hope. When this landmark Harlem tree was felled in 1934 as part of the widening of 7th Avenue, the owner of the Apollo bought a piece of the stump and had it set on a pedestal onstage. Performers would touch the tree as they went on stage for good luck, a tradition which continues to this day.

Alice and the Tree of Hope in 2022

Billy’s history with the place was fascinating. “I started meeting all the stars that were performing here. Imagine, I saw Stevie Wonder when he was 15. Eventually, I saw Michael Jackson and his brothers. Michael was nine years old when they first came and performed on the Amateur Night.”

If the Apollo Theater had a king, it was James Brown. He played there more than any other performer, and recorded his legendary, thrilling album Live at the Apollo there in October 1962. Brown lay in state there after his death in December 2006. Mitchell said that Brown took a keen interest in his schooling:

“I met James Brown who convinced me the importance of getting a good education. He kept asking how my grades were going. He would give me money if the grades were taking off. He convinced me to raise my hand in class if there was a time the teacher was teaching something I didn’t understand.”

That evening was Amateur Night, and a group of the children would be attending. Billy told us how it worked. The audience was famously demanding: if they’d seen enough of an act, they would start booing, and a fellow known as “the executioner” would appear with a broom from the side and sweep them off the stage. Vaudeville tap dancer “Sandman” Sims played this role, from the 1950s until 2000. The unfortunate performer might also be chased offstage by a man with a cap pistol, accompanied by the sound of a siren. Billy explained the rules to the people who would be in the audience that night. “If the act’s no good, you gotta boo. I don’t care if it’s your grandma, if she’s no good, you boo her ass right off that stage!”

Then came the opportunity to sing in our own miniature Amateur Night. I was tempted by the chance to perform on that legendary stage, but lack any talent to do it justice, and stayed in my seat. Billy had a stern warning for young rap artists. “I do not want to hear the N-word on this stage. That word has been used to oppress, hurt and humiliate black people for many years. If I hear it today, I will test your jaw.”

The show was charming. Several of the children sang beautifully, while others recited poetry. My compatriot had a decent stab at Tracks of My Tears.

Billy Mitchell published his entertaining autobiography in 2010

I had enjoyed my visit so much that when we visited NYC again in April 2022, I wanted to repeat it, and this time I persuaded my family to join me. I emailed ahead to request that we could be added to a scheduled tour: a visit was arranged for 11 am on Tuesday, and we took the subway to Harlem.

Billy greeted me like an old friend, although I’m pretty sure I remembered him better than he remembered me. Once again there were introductions and shout-outs for each party. The main group of children were shiny, bright, well-behaved and enthusiastic, putting me in mind of the kids Jack Black leads astray in School of Rock. We were the only British representatives: otherwise there were families from Florida, Ireland, France and Spain.

Once again, I was struck by the absence of white Americans at this special place. Of course, on a Wednesday morning many would be working. But given the history of the Apollo, many of the potential visitors would, like me, be of retirement age – and, New York, like London, has plenty of domestic tourism. Were these Americans nervous of visiting Harlem? Or less interested in celebrating the huge contribution of African-Americans to American music? It recalled for me the British Invasion of the 1960s, when it took bands like The Rolling Stones and The Animals to bring an appreciation of rhythm and blues music to a mainstream American audience.

With “Mr Apollo” Billy Mitchell

After Billy had taken us through the history of the Apollo, he again offered us the opportunity to perform. We were told that you didn’t have to be good, just take to take your chance to be there: and that although booing was part of the deal at Amateur Night, it was not allowed in our little show unless a performer walked past the Tree of Hope without touching it. That disappointed one of the boys who complained “But we want to be booed!” This time I had come prepared, so that when Billy motioned to me that I might like to join the volunteers on stage, I was able to gesture expansively to Alice, who as our talented singer had been delegated to represent the family, and was already up there.

The first man to perform sang some lines of gospel so beautifully that the volunteers waiting their turn suddenly looked twice as nervous. Was this going to be the standard? But Billy helped set their minds at rest by getting him to confirm that he was a professional singer. Everyone did their bit – the French fellow sang us Frère Jacques – and was warmly received. Alice elected to sing Gershwin’s Summertime, a song she had often heard as a lullaby many years ago, and which she sang in a school concert when she was eleven.

Alice Edwards of The People Versus sings Summertime

The word “historic” hardly does the Apollo justice – Billy Mitchell even showed Michelle Obama and her daughters round in 2010. Here is the astonishing list of some of the acts who have performed at the Apollo. While by far the biggest contribution has come from African-American artists, all communities have been part of the story, and the Apollo’s reputation has made it a bucket list venue for leading white performers like Paul McCartney and Taylor Swift. Quite a few acts had their first big break at the Apollo’s legendary Amateur Night:

  • Aretha Franklin
  • Art Blakey
  • B.B. King
  • Ben E. King
  • Bill Cosby
  • Billie Holiday
  • Bob Marley and The Wailers
  • Buddy Holly and the Crickets (courted the audience by playing more blues-style material – recreated here for The Buddy Holly Story (1978))
  • Buddy Rich
  • Count Basie
  • Dave Brubeck
  • Diana Ross & The Supremes
  • Dionne Warwick (performed and won at Amateur Night)
  • Dizzy Gillespie
  • Duane Eddy
  • Duke Ellington
  • Ella Fitzgerald (made her singing debut in 1934 aged 17 at the Apollo, and later won the Amateur Night first prize of $25)
  • Elvis Costello (recorded his excellent TV music series Spectacle at the Apollo)
  • The Four Tops
  • Gladys Knight (performed at Amateur Night) and the Pips
  • Guns N’ Roses
  • Harry James
  • The Isley Brothers
  • James Brown (performed at Amateur Night)
  • Jimi Hendrix (won an amateur musician contest in 1964)
  • Joe Tex (performed at Amateur Night)
  • Big Joe Turner
  • Keith Richards (played Gimme Shelter at a benefit concert in 2015)
  • King Curtis (performed at Amateur Night)
  • Lauryn Hill (had to contend with booing after a shaky start in her Amateur Night performance in 1987 at the age of thirteen – but persevered and won the crowd over)
  • Little Richard
  • Luther Vandross
  • Mahalia Jackson
  • Marvin Gaye
  • Mary J. Blige
  • Michael Jackson (performed at nine years old at Amateur Night in 1967 as one of the Jackson Brothers. Jackson played a free concert at the Apollo on April 24, 2002, said to be his final on-stage performance before his death in 2009)
  • Mick Jagger: “I came to watch James Brown…I was sitting down at the back. He asked me to come onstage and I tried to run out…and they forced me to come onstage.”
  • Ne-Yo
  • Otis Redding (here singing Pain in my Heart from 1964 – a woman in the audience calls out “Sing it pretty!” – and he does, he does)
  • Pearl Bailey (performed at Amateur Night)
  • Patti LaBelle
  • Paul McCartney (played there in 2010. He described it as “the Holy Grail”, adding that he “dreamed of playing here for many a year” On arriving at the theater, he asked to see Billy Mitchell, and asked Mitchell to introduce him on stage.)
  • Quincy Jones
  • Ray Charles
  • Richard Prior
  • Ronnie Spector (performed at Amateur Night)
  • Ruth Brown (performed at Amateur Night)
  • Sam Cooke
  • Sammy Davis Jr.
  • Sarah Vaughan (performed at Amateur Night)
  • Sister Rosetta Tharpe
  • Smokey Robinson and the Miracles (here in 1963 singing You Really Got a Hold on Me)
  • Stan Getz
  • The Staple Singers
  • Stevie Wonder
  • Taylor Swift
  • The Temptations
  • Tony Bennett
  • Wilson Pickett (here singing In the Midnight Hour, introduced by Rod Stewart)
  • Woody Herman

On many tourist experiences the punters are herded like cattle and milked for cash at every opportunity, and ticking off the big sights can be dispiriting. But our visit to the Apollo was intimate and joyful. Billy Mitchell’s knowledge and enthusiasm was infectious, and it was a privilege to hear those stories and walk on that stage. If you love your music and find yourself in New York City, be sure to visit the Apollo Theater, Harlem.

The worst thing about Debbie

Alice took the rap, wrongly I believe. It was 25th May 2005 – I know that because it was one of the most famous nights in Champions League history, the Miracle of Istanbul.

Unaware that the match was scheduled for that evening – or that Liverpool would be finalists – I had arranged for Mum and Dad to look after the girls, and bought us tickets for to see Jack Dee at the Wycombe Swan. He was very funny. I don’t think he had taken account of the Champions League calendar either, because after the interval he moaned (amusingly) about missing the match, and goaded the football fans in the audience by threatening to reveal the half-time score – which I now know was 3-0 to AC Milan.

Later, back in the car park, I overheard excited football talk coming from the next car. I turned on the radio and heard the story of Liverpool’s amazing comeback, and penalty shootout victory.

Dad regarded himself as Welsh, and I see myself as a Watford man, but we were both born in Liverpool, and would support them against anyone but Watford. So back at home, he had no doubt been looking forward to a night watching the footie while Mum fielded the kids. I imagine him getting steadily gloomier as AC Milan built up their three goal lead in the first half.

About seven minutes into the second half, there was a cry from the kitchen accompanied by the sound of breaking glass. Dad went straight to the kitchen, where he found Mum staring at a mess of glass shards and Marmite adorning the kitchen floor. Alice had picked up a jar by the lid, which hadn’t been properly screwed on, and a half spiral of contact coupled with the stickiness of the product had kept the jar and its contents attached just long enough to lift it over the hard tiled kitchen floor.

Mum and Dad set to work clearing up the dangerous, sticky mess while keeping Rachel and Alice at a safe distance. Finally, calm and order was restored, and Dad could return to the football. It was three all. In a six minute period, Gerrard, Šmicer and Alonso had all scored – the most amazing comeback in Champions League history.

And Dad had missed it all. AC Milan then steadied their ship, and there were no further goals in normal time or extra time, and Liverpool triumphed in the penalty shootout.

But who should take the blame for that Marmite disaster? Debbie is a wonderful cook. My contribution in the kitchen is to clear up afterwards, and in doing so I frequently find lids sat loosely atop ingredient jars. And just today I found the Ariel top not completely screwed on. Chaos and anarchy.

Of course, it’s never a good idea to pick up jars or bottles by the lid. But Alice was only eight, and entitled to believe that sensible adults wouldn’t have left it in a hazardous state. So I wonder if the Marmite had been put back in the cupboard after Debbie had left it unscrewed. Now I’m not comparing this to the Dreyfus affair or the Birmingham Six, but I do think there might have been a miscarriage of justice here.

I wouldn’t describe Debbie as Marmite – I don’t think anyone hates her, and I love her very much. But she does sometimes fail to screw caps and lids on properly. And d’you know what, that’s probably the worst thing about her.

Tumbi

When my grandparents Sallie and Jack came to live with us in Chorleywood in 1964, it was, I imagine, part of the deal that we would be getting a dachshund. They had owned one before, also called Tumbi.

Sallie with her first Tumbi and her niece Maureen, c. 1952

This dog was in turn named after a dog their son (my uncle) Philip had got to know in India during the war, named after a village in Gujarat.

Unaware of the adage that a dog is for life, Mum and Dad promised my brother Rob a dog and me a cat as presents, and soon after we took delivery of a black-and-tan dachshund puppy, and later a white kitten which I named Cleopatra, shortened to Cleo, later known as Puddha.

At eight years old, my early experience of dogs had not been positive. I remember being nipped by a poodle in a cafe when I had made an unwelcome approach. I had also been scared of a Labrador owned by my Mum’s friend, which no doubt sensed and reflected my fear, and barked at me for what seemed a full half hour. So it took some time before I achieved any rapport with Tumbi. At first I must have assumed she spoke English, otherwise why else would I have endlessly repeated “do your widdle” while walking her round the garden?

If Rob and I were under any illusion that Tumbi and Cleo belonged to us, it didn’t last long: Sallie fed them, and looked after them during the daytime. That was enough to earn Tumbi’s loyalty. The cat, of course, belonged to nobody.

Tumbi – whom we also called Wumpy, or Wumpy-Tump – was born, we were told, on 29th February 1964, so only had a true birthday every four years. She was fiercely loyal to friends and family, and would howl her greeting when familiar legs entered the house. She had a good memory, and even occasional visitors were assured of a warm welcome. The exception to this was my Auntie Sheila, who was always greeted with suspicion, even hostility. I assume this was because Tumbi detected essence of cat on her clothing. Also she must have had a bad experience with the milkman, as the clinking of milk bottles sent her into a fury.

We tried to get her to chase away the squirrels who were devouring the bird food, opening the back door with the instruction “Send ‘em off!” She followed the same path across the lawn every time, heedless of where the varmints might be. I’m pretty sure I remember seeing a couple of squirrels simply stepping back a few paces, as if from a railway track.

We didn’t train Tumbi well. Sallie was not a big eater, which was often the source of arguments with my mum, who worried that she wasn’t feeding herself properly. Sallie would surreptitiously feed the dog pieces of her teatime cake, or dinner from the table. This made Tumbi seriously overweight and gave her terrible habits: she came to expect food at the table, and would insistently howl for it – a problem which got worse as she grew older.

Sallie was 77 when she came to live with us, so she didn’t walk quickly. Perhaps she felt Tumbi needed more exercise, so as she walked along the flinty surface of Park Avenue, she would kick the stones with her boots for Tumbi to chase after. This created another bad habit: Tumbi started barking ceaselessly for us to throw stones for her. Not very safe – there’s a reason why dogs are usually encouraged to chase sticks instead. Also very annoying, to us and the neighbours. Once, just to get our own back, at a riverside picnic Rob and I threw such a barrage of ‘tonys for her that she just stood there standing in the stream barking furiously, too paralysed with choice to chase any of them.

Sallie died when Tumbi was seven. Our cleaning lady Mrs Galloway arrived to find her lifeless in her rocking chair, with Tumbi lying patiently at her feet.

Mum was houseproud, and wouldn’t have had a dog out of choice, but she dutifully took on responsibility. It wasn’t easy: with Mum and Dad both working, the dog was left alone for long periods, and as she got older some neighbours reported her howling in distress when left alone during the day. With hindsight we should have hired a dog walker, or at least a visitor to let her out in the middle of the day.

Encouraged by Mum, we spoke to Tumbi in her own language, a joint development I think by Mum and her cousin Mollie. Suddie wob mom doll meant “thought he was mother’s darling” and Ubble sings doin’ to los meant “awful things they’re doing to you”. I also gave her a full name, in keeping with what I felt was her (hem) aristocratic bearing: Fittipaldi J. Esterhazy J. Mustang-Goulash J. Los J. Sisyphus J. Tumbi. That requires explanation.

  • Fittipaldi – after Emerson Fittipaldi, the racing driver, obviously.
  • J’s – we once held a pencil to her paw in an attempt to get her to sign her name, and it came out looking vaguely like a “J”.
  • Esterhazy – after Charles Marie Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy, the villain of the Dreyfus affair. Who apparently spent his last years writing anti-Semitic articles in Harpenden.
  • Mustang-Goulash – no idea, probably just added for extra length and comic effect
  • Los – from Tumbi language, meaning “you”.
  • Sisyphus – Tumbi’s habit of chasing stones, and particularly, pushing them up hills only to see them roll back down again, earned her this nickname from Dad,
  • Tumbi – her actual name.

In the second half of Tumbi’s life, Rob and I were sometimes a little mean to her. Back when Gary Glitter was thought of as nothing worse than an untalented prat (innocent times), we would sit Tumbi vertically – which can’t have been good for her long spine – and make her dance along to I’m the Leader of the Gang, her paws punch in time. And when Rob brought home his life partner, she was shocked at our cruelty, addressing the dog in her own language with phrases like “Are you dettin old an’ useless an’ dyin’, den?” “Are you big fat useless lump, den?”

The cat, of course, could easily outwit Tumbi. If the dog was occupying the basket, the cat, being fed on demand, would approach her food cupboard miaowing. We then put out some food, but she walked away immediately. Tumbi (definitely not fed on demand) would rush out of her basket hoping for the leftovers, only to find the food dish snatched away, and Puddha settled in her warm basket.

Tumbi always enjoyed her walkies, and in her last years at Chipperfield she still got excited when her lead was brought out. Once as I walked along our road, she followed at a snail’s pace on a gradually climbing bank and found herself on top of a steep slope, trapped by her short, arthritic limbs. So I walked her back to the start of her climb, and turned round. She went exactly the same way, and got stuck again. I didn’t try to walk her again. In her dotage she also walked into our garden pond, and got lost in our (pleasant but not huge) garden. Sometimes she would plod into her basket, quite unaware that the cat was already in residence. Puddha tolerated this intrusion with weary acceptance.

Tumbi had been part of my life from eight years old through grammar school and university to the beginning of my career. When I visited Mum and Dad from London one Sunday in early 1980, Tumbi looked confused and immobile – completely out of sorts. Dad said he would take her to the vet the next morning. I asked if he was expecting any treatment to be recommended for her, and he shook his head. I got to the floor, gave her a last cuddle, and said “Going to see Nana”. Mum was touched and amused to hear this from an avowed atheist.

Tumbi did have some bad habits, largely because Sallie had been more of an indulgent grandma than a mum to her. But Tumbi was loyal, affectionate and fun, and I loved to hear her charging upstairs to lie at the end of my bed on weekend mornings. She had lived to a ripe old age, and almost reached her fourth birthday (i.e. nearly sixteen years). I’m sure she went to doggie heaven. Well, probably.

How did you get here?

If you’ve just landed on rikramblings.com for the first time, I need your help. I’d like to know how you got here. (Feel free to jump to the last couple of paragraphs).

There is a type of blogger who specialises in blogging about blogging. It is a short cut to getting engagement: it attracts bloggers who are interested in blogging. They will shower you with likes and comments, as long as you play the game, and lavish your own likes and comments on their blogs about blogging.

If you think this sounds incestuous and dull, you’re not wrong. So please excuse me for joining in with this dreary game. But I seek the answer to a mystery. The graph above shows that during the last week the number of visitors to Ramblings has increased roughly tenfold, although I’ve made no extra effort to promote the blog. Naturally my first reaction was that at last the quality of my writing has been recognised. However, as I thought about it further, this conclusion seemed optimistic.

My web host, WordPress, provides some information about how visitors have reached my site. Some come from WordPress itself: actual followers who want to read what I have written, friends and family who are being loyal (and I appreciate it), or fellow bloggers who hope that if they follow my site, I will follow theirs. Some come from social media: I might sometimes plug a post in a Facebook group – and one ex-politician with a decent following once linked to my post on his Twitter. Day to day, though, most visits come from search engines, which have found my site in response to users’ search terms.

WordPress sometimes lists which search engines have provided hits to my pages: Bing, DuckDuckGo and even Baidu feature. (I assume the Communist Party of China is monitoring my blog carefully to defend against the risk of counter-revolution.) But presumably the great majority come from Google, in line with their market share – perhaps their algorithm has somehow moved my blog up its search rankings?

About 90% of the recent surge in visits comes from search engines, very few of which are identified. Fewer still have their search terms specified. The percentage of visits to my homepage – where you can scroll down through all my posts – is also about 90%, with only 10% landing on individual posts.

This is surprising, because a Google user will find it far more useful to land on the particular short post matching his search terms than on the homepage, where it might be buried under scores of other posts. Why are these searches not being directed more accurately?

I’m wary of this apparent surge in popularity, because it hasn’t been accompanied by any increase in engagement, such as comments showing that the reader has read and understood, maybe even enjoyed the post.

(Although many comments are spam: some are outright gibberish, while others say generic things like “Great Post!”. One comment on my Edward Lear trail blog even said “Thanks! I found your post super informative and helpful!”. Followers of that blog will realise immediately that the comment could not have come from an actual reader).

Likes, while always welcome, are a much weaker form of engagement. Many come from other bloggers simply trying to get more likes for their own blog in return. WordPress gets far fewer likes as a percentage of views than Facebook or Twitter, because most people who land on the page are not signed in – they need to register for a WordPress account before they can like or comment on a blog, and few go to that trouble.

The absence of any comments or likes from all these extra visits makes me question the depth of interest – possibly even the existence – of these new readers. What were they looking for, and did they manage to find it in my blog?

So, if you’ve landed on this blog for the first time, and feel like helping clear up my confusion, please take a minute to log in or register on WordPress, and either message me or post a comment below, letting me know:

  • Which search engine you used
  • What your search terms were
  • Whether you found what you were searching for in my blog.

Who knows, I might even be able to help you find what you’re looking for. That would put you one up on Bono.

“A quarter of my life is almost past”

Not talking about me, I’d need to live to be, um, very old. I’m talking about John Sebastian of The Lovin’ Spoonful, a wonderful group from the US, who recorded the achingly beautiful Darlin’ Be Home Soon in late 1966. (They loved an apostrophe.)

In 1966 Francis Ford Coppola commissioned Sebastian to write music for the his film You’re a Big Boy Now. Sebastian said that he wrote the song as “pleas for a partner to spend a few minutes talking before leaving…. but you never knew if the other person was actually there listening or was already gone”.

After the recording was completed, the producer discovered that an engineer had mistakenly erased Sebastian’s vocal track, so he had to re-record it the next day. Sebastian said: “What you hear on the record is me, a half hour after learning that my original vocal track had been erased. You can even hear my voice quiver a little at the end. That was me thinking about the vocal we lost and wanting to kill someone.”

Zal Yanovsky, Lovin’ Spoonful’s lead guitarist, hated the song. He thought it was sappy, and accused Sebastian of going soft. During a performance on The Ed Sullivan Show Yanovsky clowned about mocking Sebastian’s heartfelt delivery. Come on Zal, don’t be so rude. No-one had cancelled the Beatles after Yesterday, or the Stones after As Tears Go By. And Lovin’ Spoonful’s Daydream wasn’t exactly Long Tall Sally now, was it?

Despite these unpromising incidents, it’s the tenderest, sweetest song about missing a loved one. Sebastian wooed the crowd with it at an impromptu performance at Woodstock. It even rhymes dawdled with toddled. But…do you remember being confused by this line from Paul Simon?

I was twenty-one years when I wrote this song
I'm twenty-two now, but I won't be for long

Well, Darling Be Home Soon has a line which is just as baffling:

A quarter of my life is almost past

How could he possibly know that? Did he know how long he was going to live? And almost? What spurious precision is this? Did he recalculate the fraction each time he sang the song in his career?

So, John Sebastian was born on 17th March 1944. Let’s say he wrote the song in September 1966, when he was twenty-two and a half. For that to be a quarter of his life, he must live to be ninety. I suppose we can be generous about the almost – after all, almost might be a few seconds earlier. Still, it seems presumptuous to promise yourself ninety years. But he’s doing fine, he’s 78 and let’s hope he’s in good health and gets there – the man who brought us this beautiful song, and the marvellous Summer in the City deserves nothing less. All being well here, I certainly intend to raise a glass to him on 17th March 2034. I’ve put a note in my diary.

Le gros commandant Whof Whof Whof: part 1

Sir Watkin Williams-Wynn the 5th Baronet in 1802 – 26 years before the birth of Sarah Rowley

My great great grandmother Sarah Williams née Rowley was a “kept woman”. That, at least, is the story that has persisted on my mother’s side of the family for over a century.

Born in 1828, she lived in Newbridge, near Chirk in Wales. The local gentry, personified at the time by Sir Watkin Williams-Wynn, 5th Baronet (1772-1840) and later by his son Sir Watkin Williams-Wynn, 6th Baronet (1820-1885) resided at Wynnstay Hall, Ruabon, two miles away. In a letter written in 1991 Mollie, her great granddaughter and my mother’s cousin, set out what she knew:

“Sarah could have worked at Wynnstay Hall as a young girl. My mother told me that she was an intelligent woman, who could read and write, which was unusual in those days; and that she would write letters for people in the village at sixpence a time. There were few schools at the time, so the family assumed she was taught in Wynnstay Hall. Mother also said that she was allowed to live rent-free in her cottage on Dee Side, Newbridge.”

Mollie’s son Phil has been able to add some colour to this:

“Mollie’s memory was of a woman who wasn’t ashamed or embarrassed about the situation. It was an “open” arrangement. So I think Sarah felt loved and appreciated, and local people came to her to have their letters written by her and read to them by her. Indeed it appears that she made a living out of it. She lived on the estate rent-free which suggests at the very least a warm relationship between and her landlord. He wanted to help her out of personal feelings or obligations.”

(Phil himself was once told by a friend that he resembled a gallery portrait, which coincidentally turned out to be of one of the Williams-Wynns.)

Wynne Stay, Seat of Sir Watkins Williams Wynne, by John Ingleby (1793)

So on thin evidence, happy to weave a high-born narrative, our family concluded that Sarah might have received the favours of education and free accommodation thanks to her relationship with one of the Sir Watkins. The nature of the supposed relationship, however, is unclear.

The first possibility is that she was allowed to live rent free because her father John Rowley or her husband John Williams might have died in an accident in the Wynnstay colliery, Ruabon, or following a work related sickness. But John Rowley died in 1855 of asthma, at the age of 66, which doesn’t seem to meet the (probably very high) threshold for a landlord or employer to provide support: and by then Sarah was living with her husband, and would not then have needed help with the rent. I have not found a death record for John Williams, although his daughter Edith, born 1866, was said not to remember him. The manner of his death could yet explain the rent free arrangement.

The second possibility is that Sir Watkin, 5th Baronet, had a relationship with a local girl in about 1827, and that Sarah was his illegitimate daughter. The third is that Sir Watkin, 6th Baronet, had a relationship with Sarah herself, perhaps around 1846, and that she bore his child.

The Williams-Wynn family owned huge estates in north Wales, and the 5th Baronet played a prominent part in politics. The current Baronet, Sir David Williams-Wynn, can still claim royal Welsh descent, and could theoretically use the appellation “Dafydd III of Wales”.

The 5th Baronet grew to be seventeen and half stone, which sometimes caused chairs to collapse under him, and his contemporary Lady Holland, commented “Sir Watkin’s tongue is immensely too big for his mouth and his utterance is so impeded by it that what he attempts to articulate is generally unintelligible.” His size and the unfortunate style of his speech earned him the soubriquet le gros commandant Whof Whof Whof when he was garrisoned in Bordeaux in 1814 as Colonel of the Denbighshire Militia.

(When I shared this rumour of our aristocratic ancestry with my daughter Rachel, she was initially excited, picturing her 4 x great grandfather as Colin Firth playing Mr Darcy. Less so after her first seconds of research uncovered le gros commandant Whof Whof Whof.)

The 6th Baronet, caricatured as “The King of Wales”, Vanity Fair, 1873

His son the 6th Baronet hunted four days a week, having been appointed master of the hunt at 23. He was a director of the Great Western Railway, and in 1845 served as treasurer of the Salop Infirmary in Shrewsbury. After Wynnstay was almost totally destroyed by fire in 1858, Sir Watkin had it rebuilt between 1859 and 1865 on the same site.

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

Let’s check the speculation against some facts: looking firstly at the possibility that Sarah was Sir Watkin, 5th Baronet’s illegitimate daughter. If this could be proven, then I, my brother, our children and all my first, second, third and fourth cousins descended from Sarah’s mother could claim direct lineage from the Welsh kings and princes.

Sarah’s mother is recorded as Elizabeth Rowley née Davies (1794-1868). She married John Rowley, a coalminer, on 26 May 1828, when she was 34.

Within four months her daughter Sarah was baptised on 17 September 1828 – when the 5th Baronet was 56.

The record shows Sarah’s parents as John and Elizabeth Rowley. So does that destroy the theory that the real father was Sir Watkin? Well, not quite. If he had been the actual father, he was hardly likely to admit to it on official records. Perhaps he came to a private settlement with Elizabeth, while local man John Rowley very decently stepped in to save her reputation – and later helped Sarah to get an education, and allowed her to live rent-free, because he felt some responsibility for her.

That said, Elizabeth’s age of 34 when Sarah was born doesn’t quite sit with the stereotype of a young servant being seduced (or worse) by the Lord of the Manor.

Now look at the possibility that the younger Sir Watkin, 6th Baronet had a relationship with Sarah herself. If he did father a child with Sarah, most likely it was her first, John Williams (junior) who was baptised in 1847 when Sarah was 19 and Sir Watkin was 27, still a bachelor.

But again, the official record shows no hint of illegitimacy: Sarah had married coalminer John Williams (senior) thirteen months earlier in September 1846:

So if Sir Watkin was actually the father, then either the baptism took place some months or years after the birth (which did sometimes happen, especially in poorer families) – or else Sir Watkin seduced or imposed himself on a young married woman. In this version John Williams senior would be the knight in shining armour who stepped in to marry Sarah and save her from ruin.

Sarah had seven children in total – the fifth being my great grandmother Alice – and died in 1894 aged 65. It seems less likely that Sir Watkin, 6th Baronet fathered any others after John junior, although it is possible he carried on the relationship indefinitely disregarding her marriage to John Williams.

So there are problems in believing either theory about the connection between one of the Sir Watkins and Sarah. And greater problems in finding any documentary evidence to substantiate them.

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

But modern science offers a possible solution. Perhaps I can wield the sledgehammer of technology to crack the nut of family gossip. Inexplicably the current Baronet did not respond to my offer to fund a DNA test which might solve the mystery. Luckily, however, Ancestry.com offers DNA tests, and where there is a match between customers, it indicates how close the relationship is likely to be, e.g. third cousin once removed. And those who have built public family trees on their website can get hints as to which part of the tree their match might come from, e.g. which set of great x3 grandparents they have in common.

So here’s the plan. Ancestry currently shows me 258 DNA matches estimated to be 4th cousin or closer, and 18,758 matches reckoned to be more distant family. A few of the closer matches are relatives I know personally, and some others I have been able to place in my family tree. But the great majority remain a mystery to me. This is not surprising: many of the matches indicate a fifth, sixth cousin (or more distant) relationship. A sixth cousin, for example, shares your great x5 grandparents. To locate them in your tree, you need to go up seven generations from yourself to your common ancestors, and back down seven generations to your cousin. Few family trees are this extensive or reliable.

Of the thousands of DNA matches, some might come from Sir Watkins’ descendants. If it is true that the 5th Baronet fathered Sarah with Elizabeth Rowley née Davies, then any descendants of this pairing – which include my family – will be carrying some Williams-Wynn DNA, and should show up as a match. Any descendants of the 5th Baronet of my generation would be my fourth cousins, or closer.

(If, however, the 6th Baronet fathered a child with Sarah Williams née Rowley, then only the descendants of that child (or those children) will carry the Williams-Wynn DNA. If, as seems more likely (or less unlikely), that child was John Williams junior, then the DNA match will show only to his descendants, unfortunately not to descendants (like me) of his sister Alice – a match between one of John Williams junior’s descendants and the Williams-Wynn family would be needed to confirm this theory.)

I can make a start by looking at the Williams-Wynn family: if a member of that family has built a tree and also taken a public DNA test, then they should show as a DNA match if they are indeed some kind of cousin. That could at last provide some hard evidence. I could also go through the over 19,000 matches Ancestry has shown me, looking for a connection. But that’s looking for a needle in a haystack. There might, however, be a useful short cut.

My tree currently shows John Rowley married to Elizabeth Davies, and John Williams senior married to Sarah Rowley: no relationship to either Sir Watkin is shown. So as it stands, Ancestry would not cross-reference any matches from Williams-Wynn DNA to my tree. But if I speculatively connect Elizabeth Davies to the 5th Baronet, and Sarah Rowley to the 6th Baronet, and then upload a good portion of the Williams-Wynn family tree (assuming, presumptuously, that it is also my family), then perhaps Ancestry, using its Thru-Lines software, will show me DNA matches with provable connections to the Williams-Wynn line.

So, to work. Uploading the Williams-Wynn tree is not a trivial task: it is a large and fecund family, but the more thorough I am in this work, the more likely I am to snare a Williams-Wynn descendant in my DNA trap. There must be hundreds of them, of whom a few will have a family tree on Ancestry, and some will have taken one of their DNA tests.

I can’t prove a negative – it will hardly settle the issue if nothing turns up. But it’s possible I could find a link, and how wonderful it would be to put some substance to this ancient rumour. I will report again after a month or two. Watch this space.

Medal Going Home

When I was about eleven, I was an avid collector of coins, attracted by the romance of finding Victorian pennies, halfpennies and once, a silver Edwardian shilling in my change. A fondness for money itself may also have played a part. The announcement in 1966 of plans for decimalisation injected urgency into my hobby, and when I grew old enough to do a paper round, a large part of the proceeds went towards this solitary pastime.

Occasionally I bought a copy of Coins and Medals, before moving downmarket to the livelier upstart Coin Monthly. But it was probably as a reader of the former that I casually asked my father whether he had any medals from the war.

He replied that he had not, because he had never claimed them. Probably like many others, he had regarded these baubles as a poor reward for years of putting his life at risk in the service of His Majesty. But then he thought, why not? and decided to send off for them. Of course, he still remembered his Service Number. Before long, he had received – over twenty years after the war ended – four medals: the War Medal 1939-1945, the Defence Medal, the 1939-1945 Star, and specifically for his main theatre of service, the Burma Star.

I was impressed by the speed and efficiency with which they were delivered: less so by the medals themselves. “Silver” coins minted before 1947 still consisted of 50% actual silver. But the War Medal and the Defence Medal, although silver in colour, were made of cupro-nickel. More disappointingly, they carried no identification, suggesting medals stacked up in a warehouse, waiting to be claimed. There was nothing personal about them: I could not have expressed this at the time, but I was left with the impression that the government had regarded the recipients not as individuals but as a homogeneous, expendable mass.

My mother’s parents lived with us, and after my Dad’s medals arrived, my grandfather Jack Brockbank similarly decided to see if he could still claim his medals from the Great War – by now nearly fifty years previous.

Jack at right

To his surprise, after filling in a form, they arrived. He had been awarded the British War Medal and the Victory Medal.

I found these far more impressive. The British War Medal was struck in silver, and showed St George on horseback trampling a skull and cross-bones and a shield showing the Prussian eagle. The Victory Medal showed a winged figure of Victory, and was inscribed “The Great War For Civilisation 1914-1919”, dating the end of the war to the Treaty of Versailles. Perhaps from our perspective the Second World War more closely fits the description of a “war for civilisation”.

But it was the edge which fascinated me: both medals were inscribed “173612 DVR. J. BROCKBANK. RE.” Although the medal was still meagre recompense for the dangers he had faced, it was at least personal – something the recipient could be proud to own.

Relatively few of the British War Medals survive: when the Hunt brothers attempted to corner the silver market in 1979, the silver price went up eightfold, and their bullion value far exceeded their market value as medals: as a result, many were melted down.

In the 1920s the British War Medal and Victory Medal acquired the nickname Mutt and Jeff when worn together, inspired by the US newspaper comic strip. When accompanied by other commonly awarded medal, the 1914–15 Star (or the 1914 Star), the set of three were humorously known as Pip, Squeak and Wilfred, after three popular comic strip characters, a dog, a penguin and a rabbit.

My father and grandfather allowed me to be custodian of their medals, but as a collector, I didn’t want to leave it there. Some time around 1970 I bought a few of the other WW2 medals, where they were affordable from paper round pay.

I also acquired a 1914-15 Star, the one which Jack had not received. I noticed that it had an inscription on the back, but I didn’t pay it much attention, and my small medal collection spent half a century largely undisturbed on my bookshelf in its Coinval album. Just occasionally I’d glance at them, and feel gratitude, with a flicker of peacetime boomer guilt, that I’d never been called upon to fight in a war, as my grandfather and father were.

2022 began with a flurry of renewed work on my family tree, as the 1921 Census emerged. In the course of my researches, I read about a Facebook page called Medals Going Home, run by postman and genealogist Adam Simpson-York. He acquires named WW1 medals and other identifiable memorabilia on eBay, and reunites them with descendants or other family members. To do this he uses Ancestry.com to follow the family down to the present, and social media such as Facebook to locate living family members to receive the medal. His randomly scattered acts of altruism have been featured on the BBC’s One Show.

What a marvellous idea! To track down a missing medal belonging to a particular serviceman or woman is virtually impossible. But going the other way, pushing rather than pulling, as it were – starting from a named medal including a Service Number (especially one with a less common surname) – it is frequently possible to find their grandchildren, or great-nieces and great-nephews etc. And a medal which has been lost, forgotten, sold, stolen or cleared out of a house at some point over the last hundred years can again find a home where it is valued.

I remembered the 1914-15 Star I had bought, and went to look at it for the first time in years: it would mean so much more to the recipient’s family than to me.

225291. W. B. BOAST. A.B. R.N.

Using the Ancestry website I started building W. B. Boast’s family tree. I soon established that his full name was William Benjamin Boast, born in Lambeth, London in 1887. He got through the war, married and had a couple of children, and lived until 1956 – so there could be some living descendants.

I also found his naval record, which tells us that he joined the Navy in 1903 when he was 16 years old, and lists the ships he crewed. The record also tells us that he was 5 foot 6, with auburn hair, hazel eyes and a fresh complexion, that he had a scar on his lower lip, two scars on his right hand, and tattoos of a girl’s head in a star on his right arm, and a sword on his left arm. It shows his progress from Boy, 2nd Class to Able Seaman in three years.

He served on HMS Malaya from January 1916 to April 1919, fighting at the Battle of Jutland on 31 May 1916. The Malaya was hit eight times and took major damage as it was last in line of the squadron of fast battleships which had to turn right round, one after the other, in the face of the full German line. A total of 65 men died in the battle, or later of their injuries, and the Malaya got home with a serious list.

W.B. Boast was invalided out in 1919 following the amputation of the third finger of his right hand. Back in civilian life in 1921, he worked as an electrical fitter in Willesden, London, and was still doing so in 1939.

But I was no nearer to finding the next generation down after his daughter and son. So I enlisted Adam’s help at Medals Going Home. Within 48 hours, he emailed me to say that he had found Able Seaman Boast’s granddaughter: he included her telephone number and said she would be expecting my call.

I called her, a lovely lady living in Great Yarmouth. She was only three when her grandfather died, so she didn’t remember him, but she knew that he had served in the Navy, and was very pleased to know that the medal would be on its way to her house. And that, I think, is where it belongs.

Kath’s writing

My parents were members of the Watford U3A Creative Writing group in the 1990s and 2000s, and almost all of these pieces by my mother (Kathleen Edwards née Brockbank 1925-2007) were written during that period. Where they relate to specific memories, I have attempted to order them chronologically, and the others according to their estimated date of writing. The photographs and links are my additions.

Dad

14 Balfour Road, Wallasey
One two, three four, five six, seven eight, nine ten. 
He sat on the chair, looking lonely, unhappy
One two, three four, five six, seven eight, nine ten.
I clambered beside him, to comfort him counting
One two, three four, five six, seven eight, nine ten.

At home on the bookcase I have a small statue
and each time I see it I’m back home beside him
Happily counting while mother stands by.
Suddenly sensing that now its not playtime
I slip off his lap and floorbound sit watching
while mother unhappy, her face clouded, weary,
says softly, “It's alright Jack. Don't worry.
Go swiftly and safely. I know you'll do well".
Many years later, the rest of the story, 
familiar to many but still hard to tell.
That morning he left us to stand in a work pound
with a few dozen others as desperate as he.
All hoping to be the one that was chosen
to work for one day maybe two even three
He was counting because of an old superstition
Good luck would attend him by counting to ten.

That day was a good one, he came home delighted
He'd called at the fish shop to bring home our tea.
We had it with chips and some new bread and butter
It tasted so good I remember it still.

Depression recession, laid off, redundant.
Words often spoken by bland T.V. announcers
In how many places are such scenes re-enacted?
Have they all happy endings as happy as ours?
All we can do is to try to make certain
that no-one feels lonely or useless or hungry
as to how we can do this well thats a big question
If you know the answer please telephone me!

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

Uncle Tom

Old age sharpens the memory of the past, so it has been said. Perhaps this is why some events and some people stay in the mind. Uncle Tom is as sharply defined as if we were in the same room, and yet it is nearly fifty years since I last saw him.

He lived in North Wales, across the road from the Aqueduct, a renowned local landmark. We lived about forty miles away, a mere nothing these days, but then the journey involved a ninety minute train journey on a slow, stop-at every-station train. We lived in a three-bedroomed house and there were four of us, my mother and father, my brother and myself. I don’t think he ever slept at our house, but I can clearly see him sitting in a rocking chair, feet stretched out towards the open fire, pipe in mouth (it was never alight and I doubt if it had any tobacco in it), elbows touching the arm of the chair, hands waving enthusiastically as he listened to his favourite operatic arias, often joining in, inventing his own librettos as he sang. It was my job to wind the gramophone if it began to flag. Uncle Tom did not need winding up. He would continue to hum until my efforts were rewarded and: “Mimi was once more in her garret sewing until the frost was over”, hitting the notes correctly. In retrospect it was Uncle Tom that fashioned my love of opera which has since informed my life.

Tom and Kath

He was a large man with a strong square-jawed face, gentle eyes and eloquent expressive hands. He hated violence of any kind, certain that the Great War, his war (he had fought with my father at Gallipoli) was a senseless criminal waste of lives which should never be repeated.

During the second world war I was evacuated to Wales and spent some time living with Uncle Tom’s brother and wife who lived nearby. We would meet over tea in his tiny kitchen. His wife Dora presided over the teapot. She had a large unfriendly dog who used to sit on a chair by the tea table, a napkin around his neck, lapping his tea from a china saucer. Uncle Tom was reluctant to allow me to share the table with the dog so the dog would be banished to lie on the floor where he would growl angrily and nip any feet within range.

We would go for walks by the River Dee, which ran under the aqueduct, or by the canal which ran over it. He would tell me that some day there might be a fair world where everyone would have an equal crack of the whip. I wasn’t too sure what the phrase meant, but he explained “fair shares and opportunities for all”. He hoped I would live to see it. So do I, but I doubt it.

He was adopted by a large female cat which wandered starving into the house, but was quickly banished to the back yard by the large unfriendly dog. He fed the cat secretly, and found an old wooden box for it to lie in, well hidden between the wall of the yard and a tree. The cat repaid him by producing litters of kittens at regular intervals. Uncle Tom would be dispatched to “drown them in the Dee” He would obediently take them away, return home, try to light his tobacco-less pipe, and all would be well until the next time.

Some time later, during a family crisis, my brother and I had to go to the brickworks where he was employed. It was beginning to get dark and as we waited in the large factory we could see many pairs of curious eyes shining through the gloom. “What are those?” we asked. “Tom’s cats” was the reply, “He says they keep the mice down, but we all wish he would get their mother seen to”.

Uncle Tom died the day my first son was born. A man of passionate beliefs, sensitive, empathetic, I still miss him, and hope he found the “presence that disturbed him” that he spoke of, misquoting Wordsworth as we walked beside the river Dee.

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

Jane

It began in a lift, a very small lift, with just enough room to take a trolley, its occupant and me. It was the beginning of the most frightening moment of my life.

It had been a fairly routine day. It was 2 pm, nearly time to go off duty. The telephone rang; could we admit a little girl from casualty with more than 45% burns? She had been stretching up to reach a snapshot on a shelf near the fire when her clothing caught fire. I relayed the message to the ward sister. She took the phone from me. Her voice was curt and somewhat exasperated as she turned to me. “You’ll have to stay on late to take her to the theatre; I can’t spare anyone else.”

The lift was gloomy, dark and noisy. The little girl’s screams had been muted by morphia but she moaned quietly. I held her hand.

“Its all right, Mummy will be here soon. The doctor is going to make you better. You’ll go to sleep, and when you wake up Mummy will be there.”

“You promise, Mummy and Auntie Betty. They won’t be cross will they?”

“I promise. No, they won’t be cross.”

They’d better not be cross, I thought to myself. How could they be so careless? What was a six year old doing alone in the house?

“Can I have Jane? I want Jane”

“Soon. Very soon.”

“I can’t go to sleep without Jane”.

“I’ll find her for you if I can. If I can’t, I know she will be here when you wake up.”

Who or what was Jane? A doll or a teddy? Perhaps I could call my friend on the children’s ward. She might be able to find a discarded toy that would help if mummy and Aunty Betty were too distraught to bring it with them.

When we reached the theatre she refused to let go of my hand until the anaesthetic took effect. The surgeon pulled back the sheet. “This won’t take long. She’s far too shocked to take a prolonged anaesthetic. Wait there nurse, we will need you soon to take her back.”

Theatre Sister nodded reassuringly. “It will be good for her to have a familiar face with her when she wakes up.” Hospital gossip had told me that this particular theatre sister terrified all who came into contact with her including renowned surgeons. Not so this day though.

I must remember to ask her mother to bring Jane. I’ll ask casualty to ring up. I tried to think who was on duty in casualty. Was it someone I knew? My train of thought was interrupted,

“Its all right, nurse. You can go now”

“No I can’t go, I have to wait…”. My voice trailed away. The trolley was pushed past me, and I saw that Jane would not be needed.

The silence was absolute. Everyone seemed to be in suspended animation. Even now, 45 years later, I can describe the theatre ante-room in minute detail. The small figure was lifeless. Until that moment I had not realised what death meant. Now I knew, and I found it terrifying. It was the absence of life. I knew now why people believed in the soul. The child on the trolley had retained nothing of the little girl I had taken up in the lift. Something had gone, but where? Not to an all loving all caring God. Where was he when those little arms stretched up too far?

“I’ll take her down.” Nobody stopped me. Back to the lift, darker and colder. I held the hand again. But it wasn’t her hand. She wasn’t there.

Back in the ward in the side room reserved for visitors I saw two women, one carrying a small battered Teddy – Jane? The sun shone brightly lighting up every corner of the room. Why then did it feel so cold? They were silent. Staring into a blackness only they could see.

I like to think that the little girl found Jane.

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

The Way We Were

Matron sat bolt upright behind a huge desk. I stood in front; I could not do otherwise – there was no other furniture in the room. “Is your family part of the Brocklebank Shipping Line?” she asked, but did not wait for an answer.

I answered questions on schooling, yes, I had matriculated. No, I had not completed my training at a local children’s hospital. “Why not?” I couldn’t tell her that I had left because one of the children had died. Sick adults die as well; if I wanted to be a nurse I would have to get used to it. So I lied.

“I left because I felt that I would get a better training here”.

“Why do you want to be a nurse?”

“I always thought I would like to be a doctor, but I think women are more useful as nurses; they are better at caring”.

I knew it was rubbish; I was, and still am ashamed. But she looked pleased. I was accepted, possibly because she thought there was an outside chance that I was connected to the Brocklebank Shipping Line.

Breakfast was at 7am. It was consumed at great haste. We were always anxious to know if authority had decided in the night that we would be needed on another ward.

Night Sister closed the meal by rapidly intoning grace, and where we to go. We had learned to accept our fate without a change of expression. We received a full report on our arrival on the ward. Sleeves rolled down, wrists trim in starched cuffs, hands clasped dutifully behind our backs; then to work!

The junior student nurses – or “pro’s” as we were called – were banished to the sluice room, scrubbing everything in sight so that when the Assistant Matron did her rounds she found “everything exactly as you would like to find it, Nurse”.

There was a mid-morning break. Half an hour maximum, often only ten minutes. Tidy your bedroom, change apron, grab a snack.

Make beds. We did this at a tremendous rate, and we enjoyed it. It was making people comfortable, and gossiping time. The patients would tell us their worries, and we would tell them ours.

Ward rounds followed. God-like consultants walked from bed to bed, trailing an army of silent acolytes in strict ranking order.

Professor C, the Consultant Physician, was short in stature, incisive and brilliant. It was said he had the Chinese ability to diagnose merely by taking a pulse. His bedside lectures were enthralling, but I always found myself hoping the patients didn’t understand all he was saying, although we did use jargon intended to mask reality. For instance, tuberculosis was described as pthisis, or acid-fast bacillus – anything but TB, which the patient would readily interpret as what in those days was a death sentence for him and probably for some of his family as well. Perhaps the Consultant occasionally made mistakes, but we were not aware of them. If any of us were taken ill, he is the doctor we would choose to treat us.

The Consultant Surgeon (always known as “Mr.R”) was noted for immediate decisions and radical surgery. He was handsome, and he knew it. Mopping his brow in the theatre made most of us go weak at the knees. His smile alone was said to cost his private patients fifty guineas. He operated fast, and most of his patients recovered. Everyone adored him.

After the consultants came first, the Registrar, slightly more approachable than the Consultant. One I remember in particular had the word “rat” as part of his name, and was called so by the nurses on account of his amorous propensities; we all knew it, so few were deceived by his charm.

And after the Registrar came the Housemen, still superior to the nurses, but easy to talk to given the right circumstances. We would exchange advice on how to cope with demanding seniors or difficult patients. The Housemen were immature, inexperienced and weary. We had much in common.

Carols at Liverpool Royal Infirmary. Kath middle column, third row.

During the day, Matron would do a ward round. She was 4 ft 10, and yet made a rule banning any trainee probationer under 5 ft 3. She wore a large starched hat rumoured to be a foot high, though no-one ever got near enough to her to check if this was true. We were all terrified of her, from the most senior consultants downwards. Before the war she ordered all her ward sisters to do the patriotic thing and join the PMRAF nursing service reserve, but in 1939, as soon as they were likely to be called up, she ordered all of them to resign – – she didn’t want to lose any of her staff!

She would sometimes refuse to enter a ward for a round, conducted with military precision, because as she glanced through the doors she had seen a bed castor that was not straight, or one of the embossed designs on the white counterpanes was upside down. When she retired, a select few of her ward sisters were commanded to take tea with her; they were served tea and biscuits in order of seniority.

Was she liked? No. Was she respected? Most certainly. I, for one, am grateful to have known her.

Dinner-time. Hand out those plates even if they are too hot to handle; most of us developed asbestos fingers.

Afternoon visiting. Two only to a bed. More bedpans, more bedmaking. Cuffs off when working, cuffs on when speaking to anyone above the rank of Charge Nurse.

Off duty at last, at six, six-thirty, or sometimes seven. Try to collapse into bed.

“Brocky, come on, you can’t go to sleep yet, come out with us for a meal”.

“Can’t, sorry, no money”.

“Jones has got a Welsh parcel”. That’s a different matter; all that Welsh butter oozing round the crusts of Bara brith.

10pm. Lights out.

10.05pm. Torches on. Whispered tales of horrors past and horrors yet to come.

11pm. Creep warily back to own room. To bed at last.

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

Coming of Age

Casualty was very busy that night. We didn’t know why, but then we never did. Sometimes a ship would dock and the city would fill up with drunken sailors; that would make us busy. On Orangemen’s day we would be deluged with fighting Irishmen needing stitching and separating. Tonight was neither. Night Sister promised to send us down some extra staff, but so far hadn’t been able to do so.

I had just finished dressing a third degree burn on a child’s hand, and called in the next patient, when four policemen rushed in wheeling a lady who was screaming. She was obviously in great distress. The policemen heaved her on to the bed turned to me and shouted: “She’s all yours”, and disappeared. The casualty officer was nowhere to be seen – probably in the next room.

I looked at the lady. She was very young, about twenty maybe. She lay on her back, knees bent, screaming and pushing. She was giving birth. I knew nothing about childbirth. I had only just emerged from the age of innocence in which babies where flown in by a stork. In those days it was not the source of entertainment that it is considered to be now.

I could see the head emerging. I held it because it seemed the right thing to do. She was pushing and screaming as I shouted “Help”. By the time help arrived, in the person of the extremely efficient but terrifying night sister, I was supporting a very slippery baby boy still attached to the umbilical cord. Sister took over.

“You have a beautiful little boy”, I told the exhausted mum. She burst into tears.

“Don’t tell my mother, please, please.”

“It’s all right, don’t worry”, I tried to reassure her. Night Sister turned to me:

“Well done, nurse”, she said – the only time I had ever heard her praise anyone. “Go and get a cup of tea, you deserve it.”

On my way to obey her command, a very tired Casualty Officer grabbed my arm.

“Will you tell that good lady that her daughter has just given birth. She insists that her daughter has never known any men. I have told her that as far as I know there has only ever been one virgin birth, but her daughter may well be the second.”

Finally off duty, I rushed to see my friends to regale them of the night’s experience. When I opened the door of my room all of my friends were already there singing “Happy Birthday”. Believe it or not I had entirely forgotten that to-day I was twenty-one. I had come of age.

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

Sallie’s Story

(Kath imagines a day in 1957 from her mother Sallie’s perspective)

It was a twenty minute bus ride from my house to my daughter’s, so I had plenty of time to think on the way there. Was it time to show her Philip’s letter? Was it necessary, even? The answer to the last question was easy – of course it wasn’t necessary. So why was I worrying about it at all? I couldn’t help it. The letter had lain at the back of a drawer and its contents had intruded into my thoughts for six years. The only way to silence its presence was to tell Kath. She wouldn’t mind. She would laugh. Yes, I will tell her. Today.

Kath met me at the bus stop with my 4 year old grandson Robin. He ran towards me.

“Nana. Nana, have you brought me my forprise?”.

“Robin!”, Kath shouted. “I told you not to do that. I hope you haven’t, Mum. He has a house full of toys.”

I picked Robin up and hugged him. “Wait until we get home dear. I know you will like it.”

Ten minutes later as Robin played happily with his forprise, a toy car, I opened my handbag and showed Kath the letter I had received from my son Philip.

Philip in Burma

It was written when he was out in Burma with the RAF, and began: “I have met the man that Kath will fall in love with” – the man in fact that she was now married to. Kath did as I had predicted: she burst out laughing.

“You did well not to tell me, Mum. You knew how I might react: Philip dictating my future!!! I am as strong willed as you are. How would you have felt if your brother had decided who you should marry?”

Aelwyn

I smiled but said nothing. In an instant I was back in a little cottage by the side of the River Dee in North Wales. I was packing a small bag (I had very few possessions). I was in a hurry. I had to be out of there before David returned. I wrote a note, very short: “I’m sorry. Goodbye.” That was all. The villagers would tell him the rest.

Soon I was crossing the fields to my brother’s house. To where Jack, who had fought in Gallipolli with my brother, was waiting for me. I was running away from my husband, my sister, my friends, my life. I had to be with Jack. I didn’t care how scandalised the village would be. I didn’t know how or where we would live. I only knew that we had to be together. We still are. Some day I might tell Kath the full story – but not yet.

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

Moving House

We had to move down South, far away from the sea. The sea? Well, it was the estuary of the river Dee. Hoylake, our nearest beach, was not beautiful. It was almost sand-free, and the sea was often too dangerous to swim in, but we loved it. We could also walk to Thurstaston Hill, where Turner is reputed to have painted some of his sunsets. My parents lived just a bus ride away, and all our friends were nearby. We knew we would hate to move, but move we must; there was no alternative.

So we put the house on the market. Potential buyers and others came round – it was difficult to tell which was which. After a while we were able to differentiate between them: the potential buyer was often fairly brusque and asked searching questions about plumbing, heating bills, and whether the field at the bottom of the garden was likely to be built on. The others, the merely curious, were talkative, flattering about the decor and furnishings etc.

Robin at 1 Heathbank Avenue

One potential buyer indicated a bookshelf fitted into a corner. “Is that a fixture?” he asked, “we could use the space”. “Yes” I answered tartly. It hadn’t occurred to me that anyone could manage without the bookshelf that my father had painstakingly built into the corner. It is possible that some potential buyers were put off because I didn’t really want to sell our first house, our honeymoon house, the house where my children were nearly born before I was rushed off to hospital with a police escort.

In the end, the house wasn’t sold until we left it entirely to the estate agents. When it was sold, our semi-detached house, I told our elder son, then aged four, that we were moving house, he exclaimed: “How can we move house when they’re joined to each nuvver?”. I would dearly have liked to have literally moved the house, if only to keep my father’s bookcase and the Claygate fireplace that we received as a wedding present.

As for being near the sea? I fear there will need to be an alarming degree of global warming before we could sun ourselves on the beach at Abbots Langley.

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

The Pool Builder

The bricks had arrived at 6 pm. It was light enough to make a start but he was a quiet man and when the family insisted that it was time for tea and TV he sat in his favourite chair and planned the next day’s programme. Tom chased Jerry through walls and halls but Jack was mentally counting bricks. (Had he ordered enough?) Flipper’s diving and writhing made him concentrate on the cement needed to line the hole. Was it deep enough? It would have to be at least 6ft at one end. He was momentarily diverted from his planning when he news showed marchers in Hyde Park bearing banners “Ban the Bomb”. What use to ban it? Someone would use it sooner or later. Back to the mental drawing board.

Jack in Wallasey

The next day was cloudy, cold and miserable. No matter. At 8 30 am he was out by the holes edge lining up the bricks. He picked up each one, feeling its weight and examining it for cracks. One or two he discarded “More like Sally’s malt loaves than bricks” he smiled to himself, and wondered if the comparison had more to do with the delectable smells wafting through the kitchen window than the shape of the bricks. He began to build the wall, plastering the mortar between each brick with great precision. Not too little, the wall had to be strong – not too much the wall must be neat.

By lunch time he had built up one side. He checked it and it was good. His lunch was hurried. No urge to eat. He had to get on. It took him a week to finish the wall and then he had to wait an impatient two days for the concrete mixer to arrive to turn the dark brown stony hole into a neat rectangular grey shape.

The pool liner arrived, and was duly fitted. He watched others stretching it carefully so that it fitted perfectly and then began to lay the paving. He worked methodically and quietly. He was probably the only carpenter who seemed to be able to hammer in a nail with scarcely a sound. It was not surprising then that the stones were levelled silently or so it seemed to Sallie who dozed on a garden seat near where he worked.

Occasionally he consulted the plan. His plan drawn with a draughtsman’s skill with a few artistic embellishments at the side. The family had teased him when they realised that he had sketched in his two grandsons poised on the edge about to dive in. He smiled and continued. He didn’t tell them that it was only the thought of their pleasure that kept him going. It must be finished when they started the school holidays, he told his aching back as he straightened up. One more week and it would be completed. It was. It is there still. 35 years later. The things that Jack built were built to last.

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

The Rocking Chair

In the bedroom crammed next to a computer and a wardrobe we have a rocking chair. As heave it out to hoover behind I sometimes think it’s time it was pensioned off. It never will be. Why? I’ll tell you…

Perhaps I should try to describe it first. It’s covered in green velvet, I think. A sort of drab indeterminate green, very fashionable at the time. My mother and I bought it. Its has worn wooden arms which are discoloured with age which have been unsuccessfully varnished and shine where they shouldn’t. So does the velvet, or maybe it’s called dralon, I can’t remember. It’s very comfortable though. It has a tendency to rock a bit too far back, hitting the wall which is all too close behind it, and shooting it’s occupant’s legs high in the air. Most of our guests were wary of it which is one of the reasons it has been relegated to the bedroom. I love it. Every time I sit in it I am Sallie, my mother. All her life or at least all that part of her life that I shared, she had a rocking chair. We chose this one together…

I can still see her rocking, quietly reading. It was usually George Eliot. A very well known and much loved writer. She could quote much of that good lady’s philosophising thoughts…however, back to the rocking chair. There isn’t much more to say about it. I have thought of having it recovered, and even got as far as the inside of a shop specialising in such work, but something stopped me. Covered in some bright new material with the wood french polished, it would lose its magic, not just for me but for my sons who have already told me, half jokingly, that they intend to quarrel about who will inherit it. They too can see their Nana, Sallie, my mother.

Aelwyn writes: When Kath referred to the arms of the chair as being “unsuccessfully varnished”, she was kind enough not to name the expert who succeeded in varnishing the arms unsuccessfully.

I, too had a special relationship with Sallie, my mother-in-law, and she was greatly missed. What Kath has also not mentioned is that, one day while she and I were out working, Sallie’s heart finally gave out on her while she was sitting in her favourite rocking chair.

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

Backward, turn backward, O Time, in your flight

“Come for a walk.”

“Not now. I’m reading.”

“Shall I make a cake?”

“No need, I’ve made one.”

“But I wanted to.”

“Lets have a chat.”

“Not now no time we’re watching.”

Why didn’t I go walking, enjoy her baking – it was better than mine – chat instead of watching tripe on TV. Now there’s no time left. It’s too late.

If only time moved backwards. Then we could recreate the past. Instead she joins me whenever I walk on sand dunes, and we talk about her grandchildren and their children. Do you think she can hear me? Tell me she can.

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

To you, my darling Ael

What are we doing, you and I,
Standing quietly in the Square?
Why are we there?
Tired, cold, old,
Together in love,
Clutching our hands -
Saving our land?

I see you standing,
Pale, silent,
Thinking perhaps of those now still,
And yet again the cry is "Kill!".

R and F and R and L,
R and D and R and A,
Our future,
The sun, the earth, the sea, the sky,
Our world might die.

That's why we're there,
In Trafalgar Square.

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

Through a winter window

The trees are white with frost
leafless branches stroking the icy air
The birds move fast, chattering with the cold?
The patio pots, cracked, spill grey soil on white turf
Forlornly empty, cold and bare.
table and chair
Did we ever picnic there?
Yet through my winter window I can see
A Christmas tree - thereby hangs a tale

We planted it many years ago, after Christmas. It had served us well. Decorated with baubles and surrounded by presents, we felt that it deserved to prosper. It certainly did. It grew so much the first year that even if we had had the heart to uproot it, it would not have fitted into the house. We bought a new artificial one. At least it was man made. not a living reproach mutely asking, “Why am I here when I ought to be outside?”

Life continued. The family grew, loved, left home, bought houses. We grew older. My brother died. It was not unexpected, but cut short a brilliant academic career. Our sons and their partners came to the funeral. We were all in that state of wordless misery invoked by such occasions. Somehow it is possible to keep up a mindless flow of socialising chatter with relations and friends while eating the funereal food. There are even flashes of light in the gloom as you see familiar faces and recall old times. Afterwards, back home once more, the silent sadness returns.

“Anyone for tea?”

“If you like”, uncaring.

“Mum, we have something to tell you.”

“Uh huh?”

“I am pregnant.” The lilting Scottish voice of our daughter-in law. A feeling of such joy surged inside. We had wondered. We had hoped. We knew that there might be difficulties. We did not dare to ask.

I looked out of the window and saw our Christmas tree and made a silent vow. If all went well we would cover the tree with lights and give presents to every child staying in the court every Christmas. That was 14 years and three more grandchildren ago.

The tree is still there. The top blew off in a storm but it recovered. If you visit us at Christmas be sure to bring your grandchildren to see the lights.

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

Alice

Eight years old 
But I could see
My Life

Grace and glamour
Early life's joys
I knew

Crooked and limping
Forgetful and Stupid
Old age

The Sun drops low
That trodden road
Twists out of sight

The Future
Mercifully hidden
Don't look dream
Live only for the day

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

Emotion

I must be calm though this little girl is dying. 
Her eyes are beseeching, asking for help.
Talk to her, play with her, comfort her, help her.
Show no emotion but sympathy, no crying.

The colour is black. It's dark and despairing,
It's shape a relentless hard-balled fist.
“Here's your teddy. I've dressed him -
See his lovely red jersey
And hat at an angle”.
She's smiling, she hugs him.
For that moment she's happy.

The colour is red now, with streaks of bright sunlight.
The fist has now opened,
It's soft and appealing.
Hold her hand now, and whisper:
“It's all right, I'm with you.
Go to sleep. I will stay here,
I’ll stay till the morning”.
Her eyes close. For ever?

The black fist's returning.
Get up, you're off duty - pretend you don't care.

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

Age cannot wither

We have a plant that refuses to die. 
We have moved it into dark corners,
(Surely plants need light?)
But it doesn't die.
It thrives, it grows,
It refuses to flower.
Is it too old?
In despair, we move it
To the top of the freezer;
It shudders in time to the engine.
It grows even bigger.
We will have to move house
To give it more space.
We can't put it out in the cold,
Because it's showing us
How to grow old,
Gracefully.

Forgotten Moments in Music History

If I had a pound for every time someone asked me how this cartoon series got started, I’d have, um, about six pounds. Readers of this blog, and anyone who has met me, will know that I’m passionate about music. And that I have a strange sense of humour. My brain frequently puts the two together: it’s wired to constantly search for music related jokes.

For example, I saw a house called Mayfield yesterday, and was immediately seized by the desire to put a sign outside the house on the left saying Curtis. Another called The Hollies? Someone should buy the house next door and call it Herman’s Hermits. What car did Gerry Marsden drive? An Audi Adooit. And I have a plan one day to move to the nearby village of Seer Green, just so I can call my house Skyer Blue and have the best address in England, maybe plonk a big yellow submarine in the front garden to clarify. And so on.

I can’t switch these thoughts off, and some time about 2007, a cartoon gag idea came into my head which refused to go away:

A very young Elton John is in the JobCentre, looking at job offers. Among the cards offering jobs as warehousemen and sales assistants, we can make out one saying “Wanted: sculptor” and another saying “Can you make up potions?”. Suggested caption: “Key moments in music history”.

I didn’t try to draw it up as I’m hopeless at art. I just wrote the idea on a small piece of paper and left it in a box on my desk, and there it stayed while I got on with my busy life. After four years I had a second idea (they were coming thick and fast), this time not music related:

A boffin-looking (sic) man is in a supermarket scratching his head, in front of a display of cat food.

Caption: Schrödinger in the supermarket.

Now I had two gags, surely I was virtually a professional writer? I wondered whether there were any cartoonists who would consider other people’s ideas – I like to try these things – and found a Q&A forum on the Cartoonists’ Club of Great Britain’s website. In 2011 I proudly posted my gags, asking whether any cartoonists fancied drawing them up, and waited for the stampede.

There was no stampede, but a few politely encouraging responses – it’s a supportive community. Then I had a response from a cartoonist called Wilbur Dawbarn, saying he’d like to draw up the Schrödinger gag. I said yes please! and we agreed terms. He very sensibly suggested that I should remove the idea from my post on the forum, which I did, and the Elton gag was left all alone there – and eleven years later, it’s still standing:

Very soon Will (as Wilbur called himself in normal life) had drawn up the gag. As any cartoonist knows, there’s a big difference between drawing a cartoon and getting it published, and I wasn’t counting any chickens, but when he sent it through I was already thrilled to see my idea rendered by a professional:

And I was even more thrilled when he told me the cartoon had been accepted by Prospect, a British current affairs and general interest magazine. It was published in the July 2011 edition, and of course I bought a copy, spending a fair percentage of my writer’s fee.

Will encouraged me to send him more ideas, and I was grateful for that: not many cartoonists seemed to be open to collaboration. I had nothing else in the locker at the time. But now I had made the contact, I returned to my Elton John idea. Perhaps I could get a series of music gags going?

I realised that I’d never found it difficult to think up the jokes – what I had failed to do was capture them. So I made a point of scribbling them down when I thought of them, and even sat and brainstormed for the odd hour, focusing on quirky performers and songs with lyrics which could be portrayed from an amusing, unexpected angle. I found a moderate intake of alcohol aided this process, although I followed the writer’s maxim “write drunk, edit sober”. The floodgates opened and the ideas came in rapidly. Before long I had about thirty gag ideas, which I tidied up and sent to Will.

Before long he emailed back saying that he thought the idea could work: he would like to draw up five of the gags and try to get a magazine interested in the series. Some of the ideas he found too cryptic or too obscure – reflecting the strange workings of my mind, and my obsessive pop music knowledge respectively – or simply not funny, but he said he really loved a few of them. So after some to-and-fro we settled on the series title Forgotten Moments in Music History, and Will got to work drawing them up. I was the Gilbert, if you will, to his Sullivan. Soon I was thrilled to get his brilliant artwork through – featuring my scruffy little signature:

The days when tabloid newspapers published a whole page of cartoons every day were long gone: there were few potential buyers. Will tried some music magazines without success, and then pitched to the fortnightly satirical magazine Private Eye, who were, and remain, by far Britain’s biggest buyer of cartoons.

After a while, he had a reply saying they were considering it. I say “they” – in fact all main decisions at the Eye are made by the editor Ian Hislop. (At the time of writing he has been editor for 35 years, having done the job since he was 26.). Then it all went quiet for a few months, and we started to assume that it had been, well, forgotten.

But eventually the Eye told us they were going to give the series a trial run, and they published the first in the series in issue no. 1318, 13-26 July 2012:

At the bottom left there

I was so happy. I could come up with all the daft music jokes I liked, and they would be seen by a readership of over 200,000. And even get paid for them. And if Debbie suggested that I should stop making stupid jokes in conversation, I could point out how lucky – privileged – she was to hear them for free, when Britain’s leading (well, only) satirical magazine was happy to pay me for them. This was so much more exciting than the day job. But I started feeling pressure – they had accepted five cartoons, but wouldn’t print the Christmas themed one until December. I would need to come up with more ideas quickly, and the other 25 of my initial pitch to Will had been ruled out.

In the event, I had more time than I expected: early publication was erratic. Some issues carried our series, some didn’t. When it did appear, it kept moving around the magazine. We were slightly discouraged, but I pointed out to Will – rather grandly – that the BBC had moved Monty Python’s Flying Circus around the schedule when it first aired.

Eventually the series found a regular (and, I thought, prestigious) spot on the letters page, and my gag ideas flowed, if not freely, at least adequately to keep it ticking over. From each batch of eight or so, Will knocked back about a third of my gags as either too obscure, too cryptic or just not funny – although he was always fair, and would try one he wasn’t keen on if I really rooted for it. Then he would submit a list of six, of which the Eye would typically go for two or three. This meant typically only about one gag in four made it from conception to publication, so roughly two gag ideas a week were needed to keep the series in play.

From the first, the geeky subject matter attracted contributions to Pedantry Corner, perhaps encouraged by the proximity of the two features. Some were fair enough: the departure board for the midnight train to Tbilisi should indeed have shown 00:00, not 12:00. And Paul McCartney was wrongly shown holding the gun right-handed. (OK, it turns out he’s left-handed – who knew?). Some of it we batted away: in the books and on the TV he’s Great Uncle Bulgaria, but in The Wombling Song he’s plain Uncle Bulgaria.

But the most irritating strand of pedantry insisted on identifying the song with the writer rather than the singer. Should we make the joke about Bernie Taupin instead of Elton John, because he wrote the lyrics? I’m sure Will could draw an excellent likeness of Bernie, but how many readers would recognise it? I tried to shrug off the ill-informed pedantry – it at least showed engagement and raised the profile of our series – but I’m so proud of my nerdy pop knowledge that I found it difficult not to rise to the bait.

There was sometimes creative tension between Will and me about my gags. I tended to embrace the obscure and the cryptic. I was in search of the perfect gag: I would be happy to have just one reader understood it, if they thought it was the funniest thing they’d ever seen. Will was obliged to be more practical: he preferred gags based on song titles, where no knowledge of the lyric was required. And he knew that we had to get it past Ian Hislop.

Ian Hislop is famously not “down with the kids” and he makes no effort to be. I stalked his Desert Island Discs choices from 1994 for some pointers as to what might be well received. I was unable to come up with any rib-ticklers based on Handel’s Zadok the Priest or Monteverdi’s Exulta, filia Sion, although I did manage a Madness joke. Fortunately for us, according to Will’s insider at the Eye, Hislop recognised his cultural blind spot and accepted help from colleagues in choosing between our ideas.

Many of the cartoons were as much puzzle as joke – I have been asked whether we publish the solutions anywhere. With most batches of gags I sent to Will, he would reply seeking explanations of one or two. Usually my replies weren’t enough to save them: he rightly reasoned that if he didn’t get them, nor would the readers. It might be possible to Google the ‘solution’, but no reader wants to work that hard. Will did get this one through, though, after a little nudge – and it is one of my favourites:

As the series approached its first Christmas, once the Eye had run the Roy Wood Christmas gag, Ian Hislop requested another festive themed cartoon. Maybe it’s the Scrooge in me, but I always had trouble thinking of decent Christmas jokes. Luckily Will rode to the rescue with one of his own. I did, however, get to write one of the Private Eye Christmas cards one year:

Initially Will specialised in Christmas gags, but over time he started contributing more of his own ideas. I was rather protective at first, but he is a top cartoonist who regularly comes up with extremely funny jokes – why would he not also come up with first rate music gags? And of course I needed his help to keep the series going – it was becoming a struggle to come up with enough ideas to satisfy the Eye. This is my all-time favourite of Will’s:

There are two ways to tell whose it is. Mine tend to be more oblique, and cryptic than Will’s, sometimes with a reference to the lyrics, not just the title. More obviously, mine carry the “Rik” scribble. In the later years of the series, Will and I were contributing ideas roughly equally.

As I didn’t have any direct contact with the Eye, I didn’t get to go to their occasional cartoonists’ get-togethers, although I did meet Ian Hislop once, at a book launch in December 2012 – even if I had to pay to do so. I attended the launch of Private Eye: A Cartoon History at the Olivier Theatre, no less, in September 2013. After paying my £25 I joined the queue to get the book signed, and when I reached the desk, introduced myself to Ian as the writer of Forgotten Moments. He stood up, shook my hand and said how much he liked the series: earlier that day he had chosen the next three ideas, and he mentioned two of them, confirming to me that he was personally involved in the choice. I mentioned it could be hard work coming up with acceptable ideas. “Well, there’s enough” he replied.

I had other plans for the franchise. Knowing how important pop music is to the boomer generation, I felt it would make a good set of greetings cards, so I touted the idea around a number of companies. Eventually, one called Peartree Heybridge went for it, and published a range of eighteen cards from the series. Sportingly, Ian Hislop raised no objection, provided Private Eye was credited on the back.

Will and I attended the launch at the Progressive Greetings Live trade fair in May 2014. At the Peartree Heybridge stand, our dreams of retiring on the proceeds were already starting to look fragile: there was a buzz around a few of the stands, but not, sadly, at this one. Sales indeed proved very modest: they ran it for a couple of years before pulling the plug. One card from the series outsold the rest by some way: our dark take on Space Oddity.

More ambitiously, I even conceived the idea of a jukebox musical, loosely based on the Forgotten Moments theme. It starts off with the ghosts of Buddy Holly, Jimi Hendrix and a youthful Elvis Presley meeting up by the Dakota building in New York on 8 December 1980, waiting to greet John Lennon. They then form a kind of superhero zombie band who go round having crazy adventures and righting wrongs in chaotic fashion. That’s as far as it got. Just as well probably, I don’t think any producer could have afforded the music rights.

I sometimes sent Will non-music ideas, but the economics of one-off cartoons can be brutal. An artist expends time, skill and effort drawing up ideas to have the great majority knocked back, and revenue sharing with a writer then makes the economics virtually unworkable. The advantage of a series like Forgotten Moments for Will was that the Eye would accept or reject ideas on the basis of a verbal summary, so he knew before starting work on them that he would get paid for it. But he did draw up a few of my non-music ideas, and one was accepted by the Eye:

Towards the end of 2020 (and after quite a few lockdown gags) we got the news we had been fearing: after a run of eight and a half years, and 216 cartoons, Will received the message “Ian thinks this has run its course.” The final cartoon in the series appeared at the end of the year. The last non-Christmas joke was quite apt:

After 35 years in the job, Hislop probably knows what he’s doing. I had felt that the series was becoming a little stale – certainly, my favourite gags tend to come from earlier in the series. Happily, Will was invited to pitch a new series, and his Eco Chamber now dispenses laughs and dire warnings from the same Eye letters page.

Never one to leave a dead horse unflogged, I have started my own Forgotten Moments greetings card shop on Etsy. Sales have once again been modest, but it’s satisfying to run it (except when a card is struck out for image rights infringement – I can’t say which it was for legal confidentiality reasons, but I did find it rather ironic) (oh, and I don’t think I’ll be exploring Wimbledon Common after dark) and I do get a little thrill every time my phone goes ka-ching to announce a sale. The best sellers in the range of eighteen are not only both Bowie gags – they are both based on the same actual song. That man’s fans are so devoted. Neil and Buzz is one of them, of course. This is the other:

But what, you ask, happened to the joke that started it all, Elton John at the JobCentre? It was rejected from the first batch, but I persisted. After a tweak, we sneaked in as fm41:

You can also find a Forgotten Moments in Music History blog, where the cartoons are sporadically released onto the internet – eventually they will all be out there. Fly, my pretties!