Aelwyn’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 father Aelwyn 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.

My Writing

This piece should really be preceded by another piece entitled “My Reading”, because we learn to read stories before we even dream of writing them, and some of the stories we read will have made a greater impact on our young minds than others. What have I remembered from those days? The stories by Frank Richards in “The Magnet” every week about Greyfriars School, with Harry Wharton, Bob Cherry, Billy Bunter and Hurree Jamset Ram Singh. Lorna Doone, Treasure Island, Alice in Wonderland, Sherlock Holmes, Northwest Passage, and Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World”, these made an impact on me. And, of course, I keenly devoured the county cricket batting and bowling averages. The books we were obliged to read at school for our exams made little or no impact on me. Our English teacher at school despaired of my unimaginative weekly essays; my first loves were always Maths and Chemistry –not much opportunity for creative writing there! Yes – “unimaginative”, that’s the word.

When I came home from abroad after the war, I was surprised to learn how much my letters home had been appreciated; after my parents had read them, they were passed around our friends. “What wonderful letters”, one particularly effusive friend said to me, “you could have a great future as a writer”. But that was all very well; from abroad I had been writing about new countries, new experiences; no imagination was required of me, it was all happening. I suppose I have always had some talent for description, but there was never much call then for metaphors or similes; there was little or no poetry, it was mostly factual.

During my business career, I was quite good at writing long reports on difficult technical matters in language that could be understood and appreciated by non-technical readers. All very commendable, but there was still no call for metaphors or similes, just plain unimaginative facts. I have from time to time written some so called poems when something has moved me, but are they poetry? I doubt it.

Then along comes U3A. Here was a challenge to indulge in some creative writing. I believe I have shown some flashes of imagination along the way, but they are only flashes. I enjoy writing, sitting in front of a word processor, letting the thoughts come along, but I envy much of the writing read out by my U3A colleagues, especially the imaginative bits. No, my English master was right – too many facts, not enough imagination. The metaphors and similes continue to elude me.

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Early Childhood Memory

I believe I have become a mature adult without my nature being particularly acquisitive, and with a tendency to think well of my fellow human beings. Yet my first conscious memory is of myself as a person with obsessive desires and a fierce capacity for resentment.

I was being wheeled along in a pushchair by my mother; I suppose my father and my brother were there as well, but I have no recollection of them. We were walking home along Allerton Road in Liverpool, where the No.8 trams ran in a grassed area in the middle of the road, and the pavements were also edged with grass. My mother was in a tearing hurry to get home, after we had been out to tea with friends. She seemed tense or worried about something, as if the outing had ended disastrously in some way – perhaps someone had said something that annoyed her, or she had some pressing physical desire to get home at the earliest possible moment.

Relaxed and comfortable in my pushchair, I surveyed the world outside, and rejoiced in the beauty of the daisies growing in the grass. I expressed a desire for our progress to be delayed so that I could pick some of these lovely daisies to take home. My mother, however, was implacable in her refusal of my very reasonable request, and I spent the remainder of the journey home complaining over and over again:”I wish I could get out and pick flowers”. My constant reiteration of this phrase can hardly have improved my mother’s state of mind, and I remember feeling quite bitter towards her at the time.

I take comfort from the thought that, if I had not remembered this episode of obsessional desire and resentment, it would have remained hidden deep in my subconscious mind, ready to emerge in some terrible form later in life. That it has not so far done so, is something for which we must all be eternally grateful.

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Full Circle

From time to time, the Church of Saint Lawrence in Abbots Langley plays host to a gypsy funeral. These funerals are an amazing sight, the hearse being drawn by a team of magnificent, beautifully groomed black horses, proudly sporting brilliant white cockades. My reaction to this sight borders on that of a child seeing something wonderful – an exclamation of “Wow!”.

And I remember how one day, many years ago, when I was aged six, living in the suburbs of Liverpool, a friend ran up to me in the street, and breathlessly panted: “Come down to the end of the street, quick, or we’ll miss it”. Not knowing what to expect, I followed his bidding, and ran down to the main road that crossed at the end of the street… and then it came, round a curve in the road, a magnificent funeral procession. But instead of the usual boring old horse-drawn carriages, there was this wonderful sight, never seen before. No horses, no carriages, but a glorious cavalcade of beautiful gleaming motor cars. For that six-year-old boy, there was only one word to describe it – “Wow!”

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The Gold Watch

By Easter 1926, my father had been teaching at Granby Street School in Liverpool for nearly 20 years. When he left to take up a headship in Wales, he was presented by staff and pupils with a gold watch inscribed “A mark of affection and esteem”.

He wore it every day for the rest of his life, tucked into his waistcoat pocket at the end of a gold chain. Every night before going to bed he would wind it up, slowly and carefully. After he died, the watch passed to my elder brother, who kept it at the bottom of a cardboard box. When my brother died, it came to me; it looked very sad, lying in this box, so, encouraged by the rest of my family, I took it out and tried to coax it into life. After it had made a few spasmodic attempts to get going, I took it to the watch man in Abbots Langley. He peered at it, then announced that it was a bit out of his class, but, if I wished, he could take it to a friend of his in London, but it might be a bit expensive.

I agreed to have it done, and in due course, he returned it, saying: “It’s a nice little piece”. Now, I wind it slowly and carefully every morning, and on those rare occasions when I forget to wind it, a strange feeling of guilt comes over me like a distant echo from the past.

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“Evening the Wild Woods Among”

When I was six years old, my father was promoted to a head teacher’s post, with the requirement that he should reside in the head teacher’s house a hundred yards or so from the school. This meant that he sold the house that he was in the process of buying, leaving him with some cash in hand, which he used in part to furnish the new house. Among his acquisitions at the time I remember a small billiard table, and a large picture which hung over the fireplace in the living room.

The picture was of a leafy path winding through an autumn-tinted wood; in the centre of the picture were two rabbits, sitting on the path, contemplating the scenery. The title of the picture, written in script, was “Evening the Wild Woods Among”. Some years later, as I approached my years of discrimination, it dawned on me that this title was rather comical, and outrageously twee. Imagine my delight to find that my mother’s opinion on the matter coincided with mine. Her sense of humour ran exactly parallel with mine, but I’m afraid that my father sometimes found our amusement not always in the best of taste.

As a postscript to this tale, it was a matter of great satisfaction to discover that when I took my intended bride home to meet my parents, she read the title beneath the picture, and could scarcely control her mirth.

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Uncle Cadwaladr

He was a strong, stocky man with red hair and an unruly red beard. He was, in fact, my father’s uncle, and he farmed a mountain in a high Welsh valley. He spoke no word of English. I was about six years old when, during a visit to the farm, he decided to teach me my numbers in Welsh. He sat by his roaring fireplace, with a huge kettle hanging from a hook directly over the fire. On the hob, a large pot of tea sat permanently, ready to be poured out when required. In the oven by the fire, large sheets of oatcake were baking, and would in due course be turned out by Auntie Kate, to cool on the hob.

Cadwaladr and Kate

He had the hoarse sing-song voice which cropped up in our family from time to time. He put his arm round my shoulder and started on the numbers: “Un, dau, tri”. I struggled ywith the unfamiliar vowels, but he seemed pleased with the result. We worked up through the numbers, until we reached eight, nine, ten: “Wyth, naw, deg”. When he was satisfied with my progress, he gave a great hoarse crow of delight, and I was rewarded with a piece of newly baked oatcake, spread with newly churned butter.

Cadwaladr lives again in my nephew David, who is currently creating a home by renovating a derelict silkworm farm in the south of France.

We have a photograph of David, seated on a low wall, nursing a chain-saw in his lap. His unruly red hair and beard take me straight back almost eighty years, learning my numbers by the roaring fire.

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The Taste and Smell of Aelwyn

What does my name taste like? What does it smell like? My name recalls the memories of my childhood, like the crisp apples in my father’s garden, the scent of the white lilac outside my bedroom window, the wonderful rice pudding my mother made, the damp following the rain that comes sweeping down the mountain, linseed oil on a cricket bat, and the scent of new-mown hay.

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Water Under The Bridge

There was a favourite game in my youth in which I would stand with a friend on one side of a bridge that passed over a stream. We would each choose a small twig, and together we would drop our twigs into the water, and then rush to the other side of the bridge to see whose twig emerged first from under the arch. There were numerous theories applied to determine the size and shape of a winning stick. If a twig was too big, it was more likely to hit some obstacle lurking in the water; if it was too small, it could be stopped altogether by an obstacle, so there was clearly an optimum medium size. A refinement in this process was to choose a twig that had at one end the prongs of a fork, so that if it hit an object, the fork would initiate a turning movement to enable the twig to progress beyond the obstruction.

There comes a time in all our lives, probably on more than one occasion, when we are about to embark on a path where the outcome is uncertain. We cast ourselves into a stream on one side of the bridge, not knowing what is in store; whether we will be stopped, or delayed, by some hidden obstruction, or whether we will emerge successfully on the other side, preferably ahead of our competitors. All we can do is to prepare as best we can, remembering the lesson of the medium-sized twig with a fork at one end.

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The Compleat Angler or Dedication

I was brought up in a land of tumbling Welsh streams, with rocky pools where trout would lurk, swimming lazily in the sunny waters, waiting for the next flood that would bring fresh food down from the hills. In our small town there was a breed of wiry old men who spoke little English, who, after a spell of rain, would emerge purposefully from their cottage doors, clutching fishing rods and with satchels over their backs. They knew that the rain would have been enough to flood the streams, and the trout would be feeding. They would return two or three hours later with bulging satchels, happy with the prospect of a few tasty suppers to come.

Aelwyn and Glyn with their parents

Occasionally I tried my luck at fishing, and sometimes I would have a little modest success, enough for one small supper. I sometimes wondered whether I was doing the right thing, killing fish for my own gratification, but at least I was supplying the household with food. In any case, I ate meat, and was prepared to pay other people to kill animals on my behalf, so my conscience was not seriously troubled. But on the many occasions when I caught nothing, I had still spent the afternoon in the glorious countryside, scrambling up and down the banks of rushing streams, with rewarding glimpses of the surrounding hills.

It is all so different here, in this flat English country where I now live. Fishing is a totally different occupation from what I once knew. Here, the anglers sit for hours by the side of a canal, their rods propped up on the bank, surrounded by expensive-looking gear and a bucket of squirming maggots, gazing at nothing. What do they think about? Do they think at all? Are they just escaping from some even less exciting activity at home? And even when they catch a fish they throw it back in again. Are their consciences troubled by the thought of inflicting pain on the fish for their own gratification, with not even the excuse of procuring food? They huddle against the most severe of weathers, which leads one to suppose that they are fiercely dedicated to something, but to what? And if they have caught nothing at the end of the day, what have they to remember? A view of the opposite bank, a few barges passing by to interrupt their reverie, and walkers on the towpath behind them cursing gently as they take evasive action past the ends of the rods.

No; I prefer the old way.

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Exposure

He had dreaded this moment from early morning. As soon as he woke up he had sat on the edge of the bed, and the feeling of foreboding hit him in the pit of his stomach. Before the end of the day he would have to undergo an ordeal which would expose him to the critical gaze of hundreds of people. He was sure to make a complete ass of himself; and worse – what if his mission failed? His shame would be known to everyone, and he would never be able to live it down.

He hardly noticed what he ate for breakfast; somehow, he got through the morning, and his lunch tasted of sawdust.

And now his time had come. After much fumbling, he finally managed to secure his protective clothing; his comrades wished him well. He almost stumbled as he went down the steps, and set off on the long, long walk. For the first time as a member of the school cricket team, he was going out to bat.

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The Cricket Bat

Willow growing by the water,

Branches polled to make it stronger.

This will make the wood grow harder.

Then maturing, ripe for cutting.

Comes the axeman, fells the willow,

Cuts it into chunky slices,

Measures length and breadth and thickness.

Skilful hands then shape and polish.

Add the handle, glue it tightly.

Proudly taken to the wicket,

Scoring runs in ones and twos,

Boundaries, too, in fours and sixes.

Till the day comes for retirement,

Abandoned sadly in the attic,

Gathering dust for evermore.

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The Six Senses

It was a blazing summer day. The grass was green and still retained the scent of a recent mowing.. A rook cawed from one of the trees that stood tall, shading one corner of the cricket ground. The game had not been particularly exciting, but I was enjoying myself, just being there, and taking part.

I was fielding in the slips. The bowler – he was the local postman – trundled up to the wicket to make his delivery, and I remember seeing the ball hit the edge of the bat. The next thing that I was aware of was discovering that, for some inexplicable reason, I was lying on the floor, with my elbow grazing the grass, and I thought what a fool I must look, falling over in front of all these people. In the next instant, to my surprise, I discovered that the ball had become firmly lodged in my outstretched right hand; I had made a brilliant diving catch.

Now, how did this all happen? My conscious mind knew nothing at all about what was going on – it had merely told me not to do something so stupid as to fall over in public. So who, or what, told me to dive for the ball? Was it a sixth sense, providing me with the impetus to dive? After all, that is why I was there, to catch the ball if it came my way, but surely my conscious mind should have been aware of what was happening. I understand that our brains has two halves; do these two halves operate independently of each other without any mutual intercommunication? Does one half control our normal activities, while the other half acts secretly and mysteriously, controlling our dreams, and providing us with a sixth sense that comes to our rescue when needed?

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A Telephone Call to Remember

I had been in India for over two years with, of course, no home leave, when I was offered the chance of attending a Staff Navigation course in Shropshire. This involved sitting an exam in Delhi, which I passed, and shortly afterwards I was on my way. This involved hopping from airfield to airfield across India from East Bengal to Karachi, where I boarded an Imperial Airways Sunderland flying-boat which, after some delays, eventually landed in Poole Harbour. Wonderful! I could pick up a telephone and call home! When I did, the the astonishment and disbelief in my mother’s voice was wonderful to hear, and in two days I was home, with three weeks leave before the course started, a mere sixty miles away with more snatched weekends at home. Amazing!

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Cockroaches and Litter

There is nothing quite like the train journey from Bombay to Calcutta, unless it is the journey from Calcutta to Bombay which, fortunately, I have not had to experience. I undertook this journey as part of my service to King and Country, being, like so much in service life, something to be endured, especially so in India.

The train pulled out of Bombay in mid-afternoon and soon started its climb up to the Deccan, the central plateau in that part of the country, and as we travelled, the heat of the day gradually diminished. I had supplied myself with reading matter for the journey, including that day’s copy of the Bombay Times. The first-class accommodation was a space, perhaps ten feet square, containing a bed that folded down from the wall of the compartment; it was reasonably comfortable.

There are lessons to be learnt on this type of journey. One is never to leave any food, especially fruit, in an open position where it can be seen. When you stop at a station, there are many things that strike you, such as the heat, the milling, loudly chattering hordes of people, and the monkeys squatting and chattering on the roof above the platform. If there is any food exposed in your compartment, before you realise what is happening one of the monkeys will have invaded your space and carried off his booty back on to the roof, where he proceeds to demolish it, telling his friends about his exploit, while his beady eye defies you to seek a remedy. The next lesson, learnt during the first night on the train, related to living conditions in that noisy, litter-strewn country. Sleeping comfortably enough on the bed, if for any reason you wish to switch on the light, you are immediately aware of a scuttling sound, and there you see dozens of cockroaches on the floor scurrying for shelter, some of them under your bed. It is a sickening experience, but like so many things, you get used to it, and accept it as a way of life.

At the first stop the next day, newspaper boys came along the platform selling the Bombay Times. Very efficient, you thought, as you started to read it, then you realise, that althought the date of the paper was correct for that day, it contained no news at all, merely articles and political comment. You then realised that these papers had in fact been printed in Bombay on the previous day, and had travelled with you on the train, to be produced for your delectation the following morning. Lunch that day was taken at Allahabad, with the temperature at 120F in the shade.

Another night on the train, remembering to avert your eyes when you switched on the light to reach for a drink of water, then finally, arrival in Calcutta, where you are expected, and transported to the relative heaven of an RAF airfield.

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The 1948 Olympics

I was fortunate to have been present for two days of the 1948 Olympic Games at Wembley, and I have a very clear memory of some of the events. Before the Games began, the identity of the runner who would bring the Olympic Torch into the stadium was a closely guarded secret. It was widely assumed that it would be Sydney Wooderson, holder of the world record for the mile, and a great favourite with the British public. In the event, the runner who emerged from the tunnel was totally unrecognised by the crowd. He was a young, athletic, fair-haired man, presumably chosen because he was the organisers’ idea of a Greek god. A great opportunity to honour a much respected British runner had been missed.

My clearest memory of my first visit, a Saturday, is of the 4 x 100 metre relay race. The American team were widely expected to win, and sure enough they came racing in yards ahead of the British runners. But no sooner was the race over than it was announced that at one of the hand-over points, the Americans had handed over the baton outside the prescribed limits, and were accordingly disqualified. The announcement was received in silence, and as the Americans trudged disconsolately out of the stadium they were given a great round of applause from the crowd. As far as we were concerned, they were the clear winners. However, when the film of the event was developed – there were no instant replays in those days – it was realised that the hand-over had in fact been done correctly, and on the following Monday it was announced that the American team had been reinstated as winners.

On the final day of the Games the crowd in the stadium were eagerly awaiting the arrival of the leading marathon runners. In came a Belgian, Etienne Gailly, but no sooner had he started his final lap of the track than he collapsed. It was a pitiful sight. He was desperately trying to reach the finishing line but was overtaken, first by an Argentinian, Delfro Cabrera and then, to the delight of the crowd, the British Tom Richards.

My seat on this final day was near the middle of the back straight of the circuit, from which point I had a splendid view of Fanny Blankers-Koen on the far side of the stadium, streaking to the finishing line with her fair hair streaming behind her. She was a great competitor, and a favourite with the crowd, due in part, I believe, to sympathy felt for the Dutch people over their terrible experience so recently endured under German occupation.

From my seat I had a close up view of the unfortunate ending to the efforts of the Jamaican 4 by 400 relay team. They were a very impressive quartet of runners including Arthur Wint, who had already won gold in the 400 metres event. In the relay, the Jamaicans were well ahead when, I think it was in the third leg, Wint was steaming along the back straight when he was suddenly seized by cramp. He fell to the ground at the side of the track. beating his baton on the ground in a frenzy of rage and frustration.

One of my sons has acquired tickets for this year’s Games, and has offered me one. Regretfully, I have declined his offer, as I think the occasion would be too much for my old bones. A pity, really, as I would have loved to have been able to say I had been at both events, separated by 64 years.

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What Goes Around, Comes Around

Kath and I were at the stage when we were getting to know one another. We were staying at my parents’ home, and we had borrowed my father’s car so that I could show Kath some of the delights of my home territory. We drove, only a few miles, to a lake hidden among the mountains and we parked by the roadside on the grass verge. Ahead of us was a strip of land projecting into the water, which concealed from us a small bay further along the lake.

We sat there, enjoying the scenery, holding hands and otherwise minding our own business, when, from around the bend ahead of us came an agitated young man. He came up to us and exclaimed excitedly through the open car window: “I say, did you see that? Extraordinary!”. We had seen nothing out of the ordinary, so he went on: “A swan swam out from behind that bit of land” (indicating the strip of land ahead of us) “with an enormous eel struggling in its beak. It swam on and disappeared over to the other side of the lake”. We expressed our wonderment, but the young man was disappointed that we were unable to share in his excitement, and he went on his way.

About fifteen minutes later, a swan swam out from behind the bit of land, with an enormous eel struggling in its beak. It swam on and disappeared over to the other side of the lake. For a while we were shocked into silence. The young man hadn’t seemed like the sort of person who could foretell what we were about to see; a real prophet would have been a much calmer person. So, the only possible explanation was that we had witnessed a loop in time, but for all our insistence, nobody else seemed to have noticed it.

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Boxing Day 1963

My mother died on Boxing Day. We were sitting up in bed having our morning cup of tea, when my brother rang to tell us. It was a shock, of course, but not really a surprise; we had had a feeling, when we saw her in the little cottage hospital in Wales, that we would not see her again. Perhaps we should have gone to see her more often, but it was a long way, and it is not as if we could have done anything. They had looked after her very well in the hospital, and so they should, for she was one of a handful of women who had fought to keep it going thirty years before.

One thing that did surprise us was the reaction of our younger, seven-year-old son. The ten year-old took the news calmly and sadly, but the younger one, usually so capable of controlling his feelings, exploded in a fury of tears and rage; he hadn’t wanted her to die, he said.

Kath’s parents had been staying with us over Christmas, and they immediately insisted that we should have our breakfast, pack a bag and go. They would look after the boys, and that was that. I am not sure at what time we drove off, but it must have been quite early, because it was still light when we arrived, and that was in the days before motorways speeded things up. We shared the driving, but Kath hated the narrow Welsh roads, twisting and turning between dry-stone walls, with no pavements. As we arrived at the familiar little gate above the house, our friends Glanmor and Jean came out, Glanmor in his iron leg supports having hauled himself up the steep steps of slate from the courtyard below. They had been to sit with my father; your cousin Margaret is with him now, they said.

Margaret was my father’s favourite niece; almost fifty years earlier, she used to visit my parents regularly at their home in Liverpool as a welcome relief from the rigours of a nurse’s training. Now, having retired, she was known throughout this part of the country simply as “Matron”. We went down the steps and into the house. Margaret and my father were talking together softly in Welsh, their first language; they were both more comfortable in Welsh, rather than in the English learnt later in the schoolroom. village; later, my brother and his wife arrived Margaret soon went home to her village; later, my brother and his wife arrived – their child-minding had taken a little longer to arrange than ours had. My father wound up the grandfather clock, and that was the end of Boxing Day.

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Sense of Smell

The sense of smell is a strange thing. It can be very evocative, in the perfume of a woman’s hair, the scent of new-mown grass, or, in my case, a reminder of one of the most miserable few days of my life.

In 1943 we had been obliged to spend about three weeks in Cairo during our flight from England to India while we waited for some spare aircraft parts to arrive from the U.K. I hated Cairo; it was, literally, a stinking city, full of persistent flies and pestering beggars, and above all, unbearably hot under the July sun. How I hated it! On this particular day I was walking along one of its streets, fending off the flies and thieving ragamuffins, when I suddenly felt sick and faint, and would have fallen had not some soldiers come to help me. They escorted me to a nearby Forces’ canteen, from where I later made my way back to base. The doctor diagnosed heat-stroke caused by a deficiency of salt, and prescribed a few days rest, with strict instructions to drink as much salt water as I could manage during the next few hours, and to make sure I kept up my salt intake thereafter.

Many years later, I was digging a very large hole in the corner of our garden; we had decided to create a swimming pool, and the first requirement was, inevitably, a very large hole. The digging went on happily for a week or two, then one warm Sunday evening, down in the hole, I suddenly felt faint and sick. At the same time, my nostrils picked up a scent that I instantly recognised — it was the stench of Cairo. I had no hesitation in making an instant diagnosis of my ailment — it was heat-stroke. So I clambered out of the hole, drank a couple of pints of salt water, and put my feet up for the rest of the evening.

The cure was effective, and the swimming pool was duly completed and much enjoyed by all the family.

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On My Father’s Funeral

Slow Welsh voices,

Half forgotten cousins, dimly remembered friendships.

My two sons a part, but yet apart.

I look towards the sky, beyond the pale autumn hills,

Reaching for infinity,

Wanting to touch his hand just once again.

A little dust to his frail dust;

Then we go down through the trees, to begin life again.

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Retirement

What will it be like, being retired? It is an experience most of us go through only once in a lifetime, so that when it happens it is for the first time, and for the last time.

We all know what a weekend is like: two days when you can do more or less what you like. We all know what a holiday is like: two weeks or so when you can almost forget all about the office. But retirement? Well, to start with, it was rather like a long weekend. Then it seemed rather like a long holiday. And eventually you come to realise that this is it! The stress of your job – that black cloud that has followed you around for so long – is no longer there; no more travelling in the rush hour; and as you lie back in bed at eight o’clock in the morning, the sounds you can hear are those of other people going to work. Good luck to them!

A little while after I retired, Kath took early retirement from her stressful job, and suddenly we were able to spend more time together than at any time in the previous thirty years of our married life. But what shall we do with all this lovely, hard-earned free time? To start with, you can catch up with the decorating, sort out that corner of the garden which you never quite got round to, and give yourselves a special holiday. Then what? We took the view that if we were to preserve our sanity, we should keep our minds active, so we decided to become volunteer workers for the Citizens Advice Bureau if they would have us.

Twelve months later, after an exhaustive and exhausting course of lectures and in-house training, we were let loose on an unsuspecting public. Now, nine years on, I suppose we are old hands, but every day brings new problems. Inevitably, a high proportion of the work relates to that ten per cent of the population who are getting progressively poorer while the rest get richer. And every day the questions pour in:

“My business has failed; I owe my suppliers £5,000, I have borrowed €4,000 on my credit cards, and I have a mortgage of £100,000 on my house which is now worth £90,000. What do I do?”

“I’ve had this form in the post. I can’t read or write – could you please tell me what it says, and fill it in for me?”

“My husband died last night. What should I be doing?”

“I’ve had this poll tax demand. What am I supposed to pay it with?”

“I am 16 years old. I have become pregnant, and my parents have thrown me out on the street. Where can I go?”

And so it goes on; it certainly keeps our minds active!

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Holidays and Travel

If you are energetic and own a pair of stout walking shoes, then there is no more satisfying walking holiday than following the South-west Coastal Path. This runs for 500 miles west from Minehead in Somerset, round Land’s End, and back eastwards to Poole in Dorset. To my mind, the most rewarding section of the Path is along the north Cornish coast from Hartland Point (which is actually in Devon) to Land’s End. If you stand by the lighthouse at Trevose Head, near Padstow, on a clear day you can see almost the whole of north Cornwall in two great sweeping bays, from Hartland Point to the north-east, and south-west to St. Ives.

A good starting point is the pub at Hartland Quay, which is right on the water’s edge by a beautiful stretch of jagged rock outcrops which are constantly battered by the sea. On the wall in the bar of the pub is a chart showing the position of all the shipwrecks on that part of the coast over the last two hundred years; the landlord sits morosely in the corner behind the bar, no doubt recalling the days of the wreckers who lured ships on to the rocks in order to raid their cargoes. Walking south-west, you are soon out of Devon, and into a world never seen by most travellers, a world of hidden coves and headlands, high cliffs, abandoned tin mines, rusting breeches buoy equipment used to rescue sailors from wrecks long since forgotten, a variety of seabirds, and always lovely views. Some of the walking is decidedly strenuous, involving steep climbs and descents, but always rewarding.

If you intend to spend more than one day on the coastal path, a certain amount of advance planning is essential, as public transport away from the main towns is non-existent. You can, of course, carry a tent on your back, or walk back to your starting point each day, but the best way to make progress along the path (although environmentally unfriendly) is to use two cars; take both cars to the end of the proposed walk, abandon one there, and drive (with all members of the party) to the starting point. At the end of the walk, pile into the waiting car and drive back to the starting point to pick up the other car; and make sure that the right car keys are in the right place at the right time.

Excellent booklets are available giving details of the route and pointing out items of interest along the way.

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

The Rainbow

Remember, dear, when we were young,

Our hearts were gay, our days were long.

You loved me then, I love you still.

Gone are those days, say what you will.

But when a rainbow fills the sky,

I pause to think and wonder why

Vows we made have passed us by.

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

A Holiday Trophy

We were on holiday in Northumberland with our family in the days when we were young and active. We climbed mountains, walked by the side of tumbling streams, and embarked on a boat to the Farne Islands, where, apart from grey seals, we saw puffins feeding their young, ceaselessly flying to and fro carrying cargoes of sandworms in their beaks, and diving with them into the tunnels where they had made their nests. Inevitably, of course, the Farne Islands lighthouse reminded us of the time when we had first read of the heroic deeds of Grace Darling, the lighthouse-keeper’s daughter as she rowed her boat to the rescue in stormy seas.

But in our hotel there was an object which delighted us each day as we left in the morning and returned in the evening. It was a terrestrial globe about two feet in diameter, sea-green in colour and showing the sea and all the Earth’s land masses moulded to show the contours of the mountains; whether or not the mouldings were to scale we never discovered but they were very effective. The globe was mounted on an elegant wooden frame which enabled one to rotate it through 360 degrees of longitude at will. It was a navigator’s delight.

The globe stood in a corner of the hotel foyer, accompanied by a notice stating that similar globes were available for sale at an address a few miles away. I became possessed of a gnawing envy of anyone who could own such a delightful object, until, just before the end of the holiday, it dawned on me that I had a birthday coming up with no idea of what main present I would like. Brilliant! We drove off to the small factory where the globes were made, paid out an amount that significantly increased the cost of the holiday, and returned home with a globe and its stand securely jammed into the rear seat of the car. So now my lovely globe resides in our living-room, where it can be turned through 360 degrees of longitude at will and for ever.

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

Stratford-upon-Avon

Stratford has been part of my life from about the age of eight. When I was young we used to spend part of our summer holidays at various places on the south coast; which in those days meant two or three days driving from our home. My mother, being starved of culture in our small town, always insisted that the first overnight stop on our journey would be Stratford, the first task when we arrived there being to race round to the theatre to book seats for that evening’s performance in what was then a magnificent new theatre. Although I probably did not make much of Shakespeare’s plays to begin with, I was always aware of the buzz of excitement and anticipation in the audience. One thing I do remember from those early days was peering over the balcony, and seeing Bernard Shaw sitting in the stalls.

Afterwards, during the war, I met Philip in the RAF, and later married his young sister. After the war he had a brilliant academic career, his last appointment being as Shakespearian Professor of English at Birmingham University, based in Stratford, where a duty he delighted in was to coach actors performing at the theatre to help them interpret some of Shakespeare’s more abstruse texts. And so it was that we visited Stratford quite regularly and got to know the ins and outs of the town. Being there with Philip was an education in itself. One of the recurring highlights was eating out after the theatre at “The Black Swan”, also known as “The Dirty Duck”, where the actors used to foregather, many of whom had a cheery word or a wave to greet Philip. But it could not last, and, after a distressing period of illness, emphysema carried him off at much too early an age.

Now, at the start of each year when the theatre programme has been published, our next door neighbour chivvies us with: “What shall we see in Stratford this year?”, and this is becoming an annual routine. So once again we are walking around the streets of Stratford, but we avoid the road where Philip lived and died – it has too many memories.

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

A Christmas Story

The lights of the church were dimmed. By flickering candle-light, I listened as the congregation around me sang “Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht”. It was a lovely sound, and I felt so much at ease with these people.

How different, I thought, from the wartime years when hatred of Germans was a way of life, a hatred fuelled by the terrible wailing of air raid sirens, the ruthless advance of the German armies and the grimness of the gas chambers. In the years after the war, it had been a long time before I could meet a German man or woman without being aware of a great gulf between us, as if I was meeting some alien beings with whom I had so little in common.

And now, for three years, my two young granddaughters had lived with their parents in a village in Southern Germany, being brought up in this alien environment among these alien people.

Then, one Christmas, I was persuaded to attend the Nativity Play at their village church. The scene was suddenly familiar; the hall was filled with adoring parents and grandparents, children forgetting their lines, teachers trying desperately to get the little actors and actresses into their correct positions, angels with crooked wings, boys reluctantly playing shepherds, wise men and kings. It was all so familiar, only the language was different. How could one have hated these people? They were just like us. Yet these were still the race of people who had done those terrible things, or had allowed them to happen, not so many years ago. So, if they are just like us, how could we be so sure that we could not have done such things, or allowed them to happen, in our own country? This thought burned in my mind, while, by flickering candle-light, the congregation sang “Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht”.

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

Summer

Summer is a state of mind. If winter is for discontent, then summer shall be for contentment and happiness. All our lives, from infancy through to old age, we have collected treasured memories of the long happy days of summer.

Childhood days spent on the beach, digging holes, building castles, splashing in and out of the sea. We remember those times, the sun was always shining: already we had started building up that heap of memories that was to become our mature perception that summer equals happiness. After childhood, happy days followed on the cricket field, chasing round the boundary, holding catches, even scoring a few runs; it was all happiness. Walking up and around the hills near my home, – it didn’t matter whether I was on my own or in company, it was enjoyment experienced to the full.

From 1940 to 1946 I was deprived of five successive summers, but in the following years, summer thrived again, in my remaining bachelor days, and with my partner, and then it was back to the beaches with children, and, in almost no time at all, with grandchildren. There is something within us, a happy facility to remember the best of times more clearly than other times. And so it is that we remember our summers, full of glowing memories. It is a state of mind.

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

Love (Alice)

I like throwing my breakfast on the floor. Sometimes when I’ve eaten all I want to – it doesn’t matter whether it’s porridge or Coco Pops – I think to myself, if I just move the plate to the edge of the tray on my high-chair, and tip it up a bit, with a bit of luck the plate will topple and spill the rest of my breakfast all over the floor. And there it sits, a soggy mess of porridge (or Coco Pops) on the floor by the legs of my high-chair. Mummy gets very, very cross, and shouts at me in a loud voice, and carries on muttering to herself as she cleans up the mess and takes it away.

Then, the next time she walks past my chair, she stops, bends down, and gives me a great big kiss on the top of my head. That’s why I like throwing my breakfast on the floor.

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

Loch Frisa

The wind catches in my hearing aid;

My head is full of sound,

Trapped, with the music of Hiawatha:

“Pemmican and buffalo – -“.

The buzzard soars back over the hill:

“First he danced a solemn measure – -“.

Kath and Speff stroll on ahead:

“Then they said to Chibiabos,

The friend of Hiawatha – -“.

The path turns out of the wind:

My head is free,

And I am free, to return to the world.

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

Serendipity

When the Globe Theatre was being built, we subscribed for a paving stone to be laid bearing the name of Kath’s brother, Philip. He had been closely associated with Sam Wanamaker in the initial stages of the Globe project, until ill-health, followed by his death in 1989, meant, that like Sam, he did not live to see the successful completion of the task. The paving stone seemed a fitting memorial to him and to his work.

Kath’s cousin, who had always been very fond of Philip, wanted to come down from North Wales to see the Globe and Philip’s stone, so she came down for the weekend, and on the Saturday we arrived at the theatre. However, because there was to be a matinee of Hamlet that afternoon, the only people allowed on to the paved area were those currently going round on the last guided tour of the morning, and those with tickets for the afternoon performance. This also meant that we could not get to see the inside of the theatre. A young steward (he was black) was guarding the door; Kath moved closer to him, and explained that her cousin Mollie had come all the way from North Wales to see her cousin’s stone, and could he please make an exception. He opened the barrier, and asked us to return as quickly as possible.

We found the stone, and stood by it in silence for a few moments. Then a nearby door into the theatre opened, and we could see that there was something going on in there. Quick as a flash, we were through the door and into the ground area of the theatre. There were quite a few other people there, so we weren’t conspicuous. And there, on the stage was Mark Rylance, Hamlet himself, wearing a T-shirt and shorts, reciting the first Act soliloquy that begins: “O! that this too too solid flesh would melt”. He moved about the stage as he spoke, listened to in total silence. At the end, the makeshift audience applauded, and he took a bow. Only then did we realise that he had in fact been making a sound recording, with microphones at each corner of the stage. This was indeed serendipity; we had moved from the position of seeing nothing, to seeing the stone, and by chance getting entry to the theatre and seeing the master himself performing a scene from Hamlet.

And then, strangest of all, Mark Rylance squatted centre stage, near the front; before him was a small dish of burning incense, while he rocked gently to and fro, uttering a low humming sound. Is he a Buddhist, or is this some strange ritual which he undergoes before each performance? While we were pondering this question, our friendly steward appeared and quickly ushered all the stragglers out of the theatre and back through the barrier. He had done us proud.

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

At Torre del Lago

At Torre del Lago I stood in the sea;

See

How the waves came tumbling by.

Buy

A new surf board?

Bored

Is what I will become.

Be com-

-forted by the sand and the sun.

Son

And his daughters jump in the water,

What a

Lovely life.

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

Torrent Walk

We made our way down the slippery track beneath the trees, picking our path cautiously between the boulders. The wet ground was covered with an incandescent carpet of red-brown beech leaves, together with a few leaves of oak. Below us was a raging torrent of clear brown water, swollen by the rain of the previous night.

A short time before, we had stood on a bleak hillside by the grave of my parents. With no-one living near enough to tend the grave, the edges had been invaded by grass, but an overall covering of moss, although a sign of neglect, did lend it an air of tidiness. We stood together for a while, in a mood of helpless silence. Our Scottish granddaughters, having made an inspection of the grave of great grandparents they had never known, wandered among the headstones, attempting to decipher and pronounce the strange Welsh placenames.

The rain started again as we continued down the track, but we were protected by the great canopy of leaves overhead. The river beneath us plunged down and down; at times the tumult of the turbulent water drowned out our talk, but in that great sound we could hear the voices of those who had passed this way before.

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

John Cooper

His picture shows a man in uniform,

He stares with steady gaze beneath his cap;

But he was not a military man,

He played the cornet in a famous band,

None other than the Besses o’ the Barn.

But in Kath’s family he’s better known

For grandparental deeds which led him on

To bed two sisters – no, not both at once!

But first he married Alice, Sallie’s mum,

Sal had a sister Bel, and brothers two.

Now Sallie, she was Kathleen’s mum, and she

Had also borne a clever son as well.

Alas, it came to pass that Alice died,

But John, desiring comfort, cast his eye

Upon her sister Edie; but the law

Decreed to him: “In no wise shalt thou wed

Thy dead wife’s sister”. John, quite undeterred,

Lived with her anyway, and once again

He fathered four, again two girls, two boys.

Now one of these was Doris, who survives,

A very hale and hearty ninety-four.

If we consider the relationship

That Doris bears to Sallie, it’s a hoot!

They share a father, but by different mums,

So they’re half-sisters, that is very clear.

But their two mums are sisters, which in turn,

Means they are cousins, so it’s plain to see,

That they’re first cousins and half-sisters too.

Now you’ll be glad to hear there is no more;

John Cooper has a lot to answer for!

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

Thoughts on Millennium Eve

The birth of a New Year always gives rise to thoughts of the past, of those we have known who are no longer with us, and of the future, wondering what it may hold for us, and for our children.

I have never taken much notice of the significance of particular anniversaries. Certainly, birthdays and other annual events are there to be celebrated, but I am not one of those people who dread the approach of a 60th, 70th or 80th birthday; one day follows another in much the same fashion, no matter how many times the Earth has rotated on its axis or revolved around the Sun since the day of one’s birth. But, of course, there are exceptions; I fancy the fiftieth anniversary of my marriage will not go unnoticed, and the advent of a new Millennium is a bit special.

The celebration of a New Year always seems to be a dreary affair in southern England; I have always found it to be a more significant event in the north, and on the Celtic fringes, while the Scots go quite mad. I have clear memories of some of these occasions.

On the first New Year’s Eve that I can remember, I was aged 7 or 8, and we had come from Wales to stay with relatives in Liverpool. Shortly before midnight I was roused from my sleep to come downstairs and out into the street to hear the sound of a great tradition. On the stroke of midnight came a glorious cacophony; every ship on the River Mersey and in the docks blew its siren, from the toot-toot-toot of the tugboats to the bleating of the ferry-boats and the deep-throated boom of the ocean going liners. There were many more ships then than there are now; it was a memorable sound.

For the New Year of 1950/1951 I was invited to stay with Kath and her family in Wallasey. We were not yet officially engaged, but we knew that it would happen. There was a very real and deeply-felt knowledge that we would shortly be taking a step that would shape the rest of our lives. That alone made it a memorable New Year.

In the early 1960’s we were living in Brookdene Avenue in Oxhey. On this particular New Year’s Eve, we had spent the evening with some Scottish neighbours. We emerged from their house shortly after midnight, ready to share our conviviality with whoever might be around, but the place was totally quiet and deserted. We expressed our opinions of the miserable southern English who lived all around us, but all was not lost. There had been a significant fall of snow during the evening, so a sledge was produced, and we spent a hilarious hour or so pulling each other in turns along the silent length of Brookdene Avenue. Crazy, but memorable.

And now to the Millennium Eve. Our thoughts of the past, of those we have known who are no longer with us, extend, not only to the previous twelve months, but to the whole of our lives. Our thoughts of the future extend for a further period than just the next year. We are aware that the Millennium is a unique event in our lives, and for that reason it has given rise to a greater solemnity and a greater degree of celebration than is accorded to a normal New Year. Why, even the southern English condescended to notice it!

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

Waste Not Want Not

Sixteen Christmases ago, soon after we first moved into our present home, we bought a tiny Christmas tree, about eighteen inches high. At Twelfth Night, we removed the tinsel and baubles, and realised that the tree had some roots, so, ever optimistic, we planted the tree by the fence where we could see it from our kitchen and bedroom windows.

This magnificent tree is now two storeys high, and, this year, for the first time, it has provided a home for a pair of magpies. The magpies were very busy, building their nest with some very unwieldy-looking pieces of wood and some lesser twigs. In no time at all, both parents were flying around furiously, fetching food for their voracious young. Then, alas, disaster struck! While both parents were away foraging for food, a crow raided the nest and removed one of the chicks, which lay at the foot of the tree for a while, a pathetic little bundle of black and white feathers. The crow then removed it a few yards over the fence into the paddock, and started to attack the bundle with its vicious beak. After a brief shower of black and white feathers, the crow began its meal. The distraught parents tried to attack the crow, but the crow defended itself by a series of brief counter-attacks. The two magpies were no match for the much larger crow, and all they achieved was the slowing down of the meal.

Eventually, the crow flew away. One of the magpies, however, stayed behind, and finished off the meal.

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

A Peak of Happiness

We started planning our Golden Wedding celebration more than twelve months ahead – our friends had been telling us that we needed to do this before all the best places got booked up. So, after some research, and on the recommendation of a friend, we decided on St Michael’s Manor in St Albans as the venue. It had a “special event” menu comprising a mouth watering buffet lunch, a large dining area holding up to sixty people, with the freedom of the gardens and lake, should the weather be fine. When we told our sons what we were planning, they said “What about music? You two cannot have a celebration without music”. So they said they would organise something.

So we started compiling the guest list, a process which over the next few months was punctuated by such exclamations as “What on earth do you want to invite them for?” Eventually the list, including some last minute additions, totalled seventy-eight for a venue that held sixty, but fortunately, twenty were unable to come for various reasons, including, alas, two who died. The last minute additions included two drivers for guests who couldn’t face the prospect of driving themselves to St Albans.

The day dawned fine and bright, and by midday was getting warm. The invitations had said “12 noon for 1pm: informal dress” and they started rolling in, and were all present and correct by one o’clock, chatting on the patio clutching glasses of champagne and orange juice. The guests had come from far and wide, not only from the four corners of England, but from Scotland, Wales, France and Switzerland. Apart from Kath and myself, there were six survivors of the wedding day, of whom four were present, including my nephew David, who during the whole wedding service fifty years ago was fast asleep in his carry-cot at the back of the church. A very special guest was Kath’s ninety-eight-year-old Auntie Doris.

The buffet lunch was every bit as mouth-watering as had been promised. At the point when everyone was finishing their coffee, and we were thinking about speeches, suddenly the most wonderful thing happened. A man came in and sat at the grand piano that had been lurking in the corner, followed by a troop of seven people in costume, who turned out to be real live opera singers.

And for the next hour we were regaled with solos, duets and quartets from all our favourite operas, and other music that reflected our fifty years together. It was absolutely amazing, a most wonderful surprise addition to our celebration.

Meanwhile, the sun had continued to shine, and, after the speeches, during which our sons said very nice things about us, as well as letting out some family secrets, everyone dispersed to wander about the grounds, and the grandchildren sat and dangled their feet in the cool waters of the lake.

And the cost? I can tell you – – it was worth every penny.

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

In the Supermarket

Harry wished he had paid more attention to what his wife actually did when she was shopping. He stood miserably, with the wire basket in his hand, gazing at the shelves, wondering where to start. Mildred would have gone briskly to the nearest shelf, picked what she wanted, consulted her list, and gone on to the next purchase. He hadn’t even made a list. He looked bleakly at the cabbages, the cauliflower, the broccoli; even if he bought them he had very little idea what to do with them. He turned away, and as he did so his basket hit a trolley coming up on his right-hand side, being pushed by a young woman with a toddler perched on the front of the trolley. “You stupid man”, she shouted, “you could have brained my boy with your carelessness. Do look what you are doing”, and she swept on her way. Harry, already miserable enough, was stunned and embarrassed by this outburst, which he thought was quite undeserved. Slowly, he moved on, and was cheered to discover a shelf full of ready-made meals; he read the instructions, and knew that at last here was something he could cope with. He chose a few, and, with a new-found confidence, set off for the cereal shelves; here, again, there was something he knew what to do with. He made his choice, but as he reached up for the packet, somehow he dislodged a whole pile of cereal packets on to the floor. He felt his misery returning as he slowly bent to deal with this latest disaster, when he heard a cheerful voice saying “Let me help you”, and he was surprised to find that it was the same young woman who had shouted at him only a few minutes earlier. In no time at all she had retrieved all the packets and put them back on the shelves. He stammered a “thank you” as she sped on her way. Later, as he was queueing at the checkout, he saw her and the toddler, still perched on the trolley, heading for the car-park. Their eyes met, and he caught a brief smile before she disappeared out of sight. He gave a sigh, and supposed that he would eventually get used to this new way of life.

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

A Weekend in Paris

I have recently returned from a weekend in Paris. My son Rik was running in the Paris Marathon on the Sunday, so the whole family went over in support. We found time to visit the picture gallery at La Musee d’Orsay, which contains a wide variety of works by all the major artists. It was, incidentally, the first time I remember seeing paintings by Monet that were not either water-lilies or the face of Rouen Cathedral. The front of the Musee building has two large clocks; at one point we found ourselves standing behind one of them, looking through the clock face, over the Seine to a splendid view of Montmartre and the Cathedral of Sacre Coeur.

As we stood there, I became aware of the huge second hand progressing across the face of the clock, but because we were behind the clock face, the hand was moving backwards – it was moving anticlockwise. I had a sudden vision of time itself moving backwards, and there came into my mind the words of the poem by Elizabeth Akers Allen:

“Backward, turn backward, O Time, in thy flight,

Make me a child again just for tonight”.

Why would the poet wish to do this? Was she weary of being an adult, seeing things through a glass darkly, and now wished to see them once more face to face, and to speak as a child, to understand as a child, to think as a child? Did she wish to abandon, just for one night, the burdens and responsibilities of adulthood? I can understand the poet having a fleeting wish of this nature, but I feel that she would find the experience a great disappointment, a travesty of a dream. Would I wish to turn back my own clock? No, I would not wish to go back twelve months, to live that time again, knowing as I do now the dark cloud that was looming. Far better to remember those times as they were, not knowing what Fate had in store.

And the Marathon? It was an exciting, involving event. Rik was content with his time, not his best, but then it was the hottest April day ever recorded in Paris.

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

Waiting?

You went away from me

Away from me

And yet you expect me

To still be

Waiting here for you

Waiting here.

Knock on my door tonight

All you like

Ring my bell tonight

Go to hell tonight.

I’m not waiting here for you

Waiting here.

I’ve gone away from you

Gone for good from you

Gone away

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

Green Leaves

The trees are weeping;

All summer through

They bore the green canopy of leaves

That gave shade on sunny days,

And joy to the beholder.

Now the colder days have come,

With wind and rain;

The colours of the leaves have changed

To yellow, brown and rusty red.

And when the change is done

The leaves begin to fall

Like tears,

Bidding a sad farewell

To oak and ash and sycamore

Who gave them birth,

And now see them depart.

The trees, now gaunt and bare,

Will stand like silhouettes

Against the winter sky.

But in the dawn of spring,

New life will come, The trees will once again

Give birth to their green leaves.

When men and women weep,

And bid a sad farewell

For loved ones who have gone,

Their lives, too, are gaunt and bare,

Lonely against the wintry sky.

But in the dawn of their new spring,

Those green leaves will never come again.

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

Winter

For forty years my love and I

Would watch the seasons passing by.

The nodding daffodils of spring

Gave notice of the summoning

Of joyous summer, kind and warm.

Then came the autumn with its storm

And wind to blow the leaves away.

The winter came, but not to stay.

Together we would face the cold

Until the frost released its hold.

In the midst of winter’s reign

We knew that spring would come again.

But now my love has left me all alone.

I thought that she and I would never part.

My grief is heavy as the hardest stone.

The icy hand of winter grips my heart,

The green of spring will never come again.

The leaves of summer will not now unfold.

The autumn colours I will seek in vain.

Now all my life is winter, bleak and cold.

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

Summer Time Winter Time

Why is it that, twice a year, we go through the ridiculous charade of changing the time on all the clocks in the house by one hour? This used to be a relatively simple task, when we had perhaps one or two clocks in the house, and one or two watches. Now the process is an absolute nightmare, apart from wall clocks and bedside clocks and watches, we have to perform fiddling operations on computers, radios, video recorders, hi-fi’s, ovens, microwaves, central heating systems, telephone answering machines and the one we always forget, the clock in the car.

And six months later, we put them all back again to where they were. It is as if, twice a year, the whole population of the country, together with the entire population across half the world, link arms and perform a grotesque dance, chanting all together: “Put the clock forward, put the clock back” which is very little different from: “You put your left leg out, you put your left leg in, you put your right leg out, you put your right leg in”. And it makes about as much sense. And it’s not just in our homes – the whole of industry is caught up in it, while timetables for all forms of public transport have to be readjusted in some detail.

Why do we do it? Who benefits from it? There are groups of people who complain regularly: the farmers complain about cows being confused at milking time; the whole population of Western Scotland complain that they are condemned to going to work in the dark, at one end of the scale it is dangerous for children to go to school in the dark, and at the other end it is dangerous for them to go home in the dark.

It all started with The Daylight Saving Act during the First World War, to allow factory workers and agricultural workers extra hours of daylight for recreation during the summer. The idea seems to persist that the process actually creates longer hours of daylight in the summer, which, is, of course, ridiculous nonsense. So why do we do it? Will someone please tell me!

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

The Seven Ages of Christmas. (One man in his time plays many parts)

First the small child, believing implicitly and with simplicity in the person that is Father Christmas or Santa Claus. He it is who fills the eagerly awaited stocking at the end of the bed, lending an air of magic to the whole affair.

Then the schoolboy, still creeping like snail unwillingly to school; he has long since discarded the myth of Father Christmas, and knows full well that it his parents who will provide, whether the gift is a yoyo, a cricket bat or a laptop.

And now the lover, scared to death when he approaches the object of his affections, – how could such a gorgeous creature possibly have any interest in the gangling youth that he has now become? What can he possibly give her for Christmas that would not arouse great howls of derision from his beloved and her friends?

He then becomes the parent, with his own child, proudly playing out the myth, tip-toeing softly into the bedroom to place sundry goodies into the waiting stocking.

When the boy has grown, the father will find fellow-feeling in his son’s reaction to Christmas, whether the gift is a yoyo, a cricket bat or a laptop, and will anxiously wait to be invited to join in the enjoyment. He can still keep pace with advancing technology, but for how long?

Now he is a grandfather, older and wiser in many respects, he is nevertheless beginning to lose touch with technology as each year brings out more complex and incomprehensible objects to be manipulated freely by the younger generations. He becomes painfully aware that the great new waves of technology are leaving him high and dry. But the granddaughters, for that is what the generation has produced, are lovely creatures, bringing old grandad into their lives with their fun and their music.

The seventh age eventually comes when, sans eyes, sans teeth and sans hearing but not yet sans everything, he sits in a corner, ever more bewildered by the things around him. When someone speaks to him, he smiles happily in agreement, without having heard a word that was said to him, but it’s Christmas, his children and his grandchildren are happy. What more can he ask?

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

Geiranger

The clouds are low and mist enshrouds the hills,

A myriad streams fall down into the fjords.

Great giants stride unseen across the land.

They walk so tall.

Amid the grey, grim grandeur of the scene

I hear the sound of great Wagnerian chords

That crown it with an awesome majesty.

We are so small.

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

The G.O.P.P.

Friends –

It is a great privilege for me to stand in front of you today, in front of this great gathering. This day will go down in history, and in years to come we shall look back and remember with pride that we were here when it all began. You see on the wall behind me our new logo comprising the letters that will soon be on everyone’s lips, the G.O.P.P. Our party, this great party, will from now on contest every by-election in every part of the country, we will contest seats in local government, and muster as many candidates as possible in order to storm into the next general election with the confidence that breeds success.

The rest of the world will want to know what we, the G.O.P.P., stand for, so we, the executive committee that you see up here on this platform, have drafted a manifesto that we intend to publish at the earliest date possible, and I will now read out to you the main points from this document, a document whose contents will shortly reverberate around this great country of ours, and indeed, around the whole civilised world. These are the changes, the radical changes, that we will bring about immediately, from that great day when we assume power, and take on the responsibility of government.

First, it will become mandatory for any organisation on receiving a telephome call to ensure that it is answered by a real human. It will be illegal to arrange for the call to be answered by a recorded voice, and especially severe penalties will be incurred if the voice is that of a person whose accent is incomprehensible.

Secondly, we will abolish the tedious practice, which we are at present forced to undergo, of changing our clocks twice a year. This serves no real purpose, and benefits no-one.

Next, we will not tolerate any unnecessary changes in the English language that we learnt in our childhood, and have used all our lives. Examples of this are references to “train stations”, when the proper term we have used all our lives is “railway stations”. Again, when we were at school we learnt about “kilometres”. Any other pronunciation, such as “kilometres” will be banned, and subject to severe penalties.

We will put a stop to the rapid proliferation and complexity associated with modern electronic devices. There are already in existence far more electronic gadgets than we need, and far more than the world, and in particular, our membership, can ever cope with. This ban will be extended to the motor industry. They have imposed upon us the use of computers and other electronic gadgetry under the bonnets of our cars making repairs ever more incomprehensible and more expensive. We all remember the days when a little trouble under the bonnet could be readily dealt with by the use of a spanner and a screwdriver; that is the sort of world in which we want to live. There will, of course, be exemptions to the law restricting the unnecessary march of electronic devices; this will relate to electronic aids for the those of our fellow-citizens who are suffering some kind of disability; I refer particularly to the deaf and the blind.

I have outlined to you a few items from our manifesto; there will be many more, all designed to usher in the new world that we are all craving for. Thank you all for coming here to give your invaluable support to our great movement. Our future will be guided by your dedication and support for the G.O.P.P., the Grumpy Old Peoples’ Party.

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

Parallel Memories

Following a recent episode, I recognised a sensation of something akin to “déjà vu”. So far as I can recall, this was the third time that I had had this type of experience.

The first occasion was when I was digging a large hole in the garden of 57 Chestnut Avenue for a swimming pool. On this particular day, which was very warm, I was deep in the hole and suddenly felt dizzy and sick. Accompanying these sensations was a smell which I immediately recognised and which took me back to a previous time when I had felt these symptons. It was in Cairo in the year 1943. The doctor diagnosed heat stroke on that occasion, so now, in my large hole, I knew that I had heat stroke again. I knew the cure – to drink salt water, which I did, and it worked.

The second occasion was when Robyn, after she had been accepted for Lester Pearson College in Canada, was going through a series of meetings organised to familiarise students with what they might expect to find in their new colleges. She came back from one of these events all excited, because she had suddenly realised that, in her own words, “It’s all really happening”. I was immediately transported back to June 1941. Having been in the army for six or seven months, and hating everything about it, I was offered the chance of transferring to the RAF for aircrew duties. I wanted to be a pilot, of course, but settled for the role of navigator, having been persuaded that I was better suited for that job. About a month or six weeks passed, during which time I came to the conclusion that nothing was going to happen, and that I was doomed to stay in the army, but eventually I received my transfer papers. I was to report to Lords cricket ground. On the appointed day, I arrived to find the Eton v Harrow match in progress, but, more amazingly, I became part of a throng of khaki-clad figures, all eager, as I was, to exchange khaki for blue. And then I knew that “it was all really happening”.

And the third, more recent, episode? On the last morning of our stay at Sainte Cécile, I narrowly escaped falling down the long flight of stone steps leading down to the basement. Fortunately, I was saved by prompt action from Rik, who clawed me back from potential disaster. My reaction (apart, that is, from expressing gratitude) I can only describe as cool, which I found surprising. I suppose it was a case of “It’s all over, there’s no need to panic”. This was precisely matched by my experience in 1944, when flying over the Japanese front line in Burma I perceived a line of bullet holes erupting from the upper side of the wing, and heading straight for me. That they did not reach me was, again, clearly an occasion for gratitude, but to whom? Fate? God?, or some anonymous Japanese machine-gunner? Anyway, my reaction was, again, cool, attributable to some extent to the fact that I had a job to get on with, tipping supplies out of the aircraft to our troops below. In both cases, panic came later, in the small hours of the night, recalling what might have been.

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

Old Age

It appears inevitable that, as I have grown older, my ability to absorb new information has diminished almost to zero. There is only that much more that I can take in. My brain has accumulated as much knowledge as it can carry. My memory bank of accumulated wisdom now carries a sign: “House Full”. I am only too well aware that there is a vast amount of new information and new technology that would dearly love to be admitted to my over-stuffed cranium. Some of it has, with great difficulty, managed to penetrate the apparently impenetrable, but, I believe, only at the expense of other items of knowledge (which includes people’s names) that have, due the intense pressure of all this jostling and elbowing for space, been released to wander in some outer region where lost souls gather.

But do I care? Well, not really. I could count my blessings if I had a mind to – my lovely family, for one thing, and there is much still to look forward to. Love, sunshine, another performance of Wagner’s Ring – you name it, I’m ready for it.

My one great sadness is being deaf. It does exclude me from so much. Here is a poem:

The Devil came up to my side. “Can I help you, sir?” he said. “Restore my hearing” I replied, “My soul is yours when I am dead”.

And I would do it, like a shot, without a hint of hesitation. But then I don’t believe in an after-life. I would have to take a chance on being mistaken and ending up in Purgatory.

Never mind. As I said, you name it, I’m ready for it.

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

Music

On most mornings, after I wake up, a tune comes into my head, and stays with me for at least part of the day. It can be anything from something simple, like ‘baa-baa black sheep’ or a Bing Crosby oldie, to an operatic aria, or to the opening bars of Beethoven’s fifth symphony. Sometimes I sing along with the tune of the day, which gets a bit tricky when trying to sing all four parts of the quartet from Rigoletto. But in general I just let the music flow through me for as long as it wants to.

I remember when I first realised that music could be fulfilling. This was at a Christmas concert in our chapel when I was about ten or eleven. A young girl of eighteen sang a solo, a Christmas hymn, and it was beautiful; I met her again many years later, and she too remembered the occasion. A few years later I joined the local male voice choir, and then a large mixed choir singing magnificent works like Verdi’s Requiem. And ultimately I wound down my choral activities with the Chipperfield choir, still singing great religious works. Singing in these choirs was a great joy to me, surrounded as I was by all this lovely sound.

After a married life in which attending operatic performances played a crucial role, I have now turned more to orchestral music. It was a great delight recently to see a TV programme about Sibelius and his symphonies, which I had never heard before. I just sat and let the music pour over me. Long may it continue to be so.

**********

Libya – February 2009

This was a brilliantly successful venture, well organised in all respects. There were 22 people on the tour, four singles and nine couples, a very nice bunch, with no doubt a high proportion of Guardian readers. Word seemed to have gone round that one member of the party was a deaf old man, who might need a bit of support. True enough, when it came to steep scrambling, or climbing out of an amphitheatre, there always seemed to be someone on hand in case I needed help. Not that I ever did, but it was nice to know. Also, when any announcement had been made, there was usually someone making sure I had heard it properly.

The hotels were good, but the food was very ordinary. We learnt to avoid lamb and camel, and stick to chicken or fish. Their meat, especially camel, is really tough. I was quite impressed with Libya. For all his alleged faults, Gaddafi seems to run a happy country. The people are, I think, the most courteous locals I have ever met, often coming forward to help us to cross a road carrying four lanes of traffic. It is noticeable that maintenance of roads and pavements does not come high on their list of priorities. After heavy rain the whole place is awash with puddles, rather like Abbots Langley High Street, only more so.

The first site visited was at Sabrarta, to the west of Tripoli. There was an immediate sense of history as the site unfolded. Sabrarta was a port used by the Romans for trading with Central Africa, and was built on a site gradually sloping down to the sea. I was enchanted by the deep blue sky and dark blue sea (wine-dark?), and seeing the waves breaking over the remains of the harbour wall out to sea. It was beautiful, and a great start to the tour.

After a flight to Benghazi we went east to Tocra (Tukra or Teucheira), which was disappointing, partly because the local guide was inarticulate. There was an impressive necropolis and some glorious surf pounding on the beach. We went on to Ptolemais, with the same inarticulate guide.

The next day was spent at Cyrene, the oldest and most important of five Greek cities in the region of Cyrenaica. This was my favourite site on the tour. It was built on several levels, starting quite high among towering cliffs, and descending by a series of steep tracks down to the sea. I think I liked it particularly for its dramatic setting. The next day we walked from our hotel in Appolonia (which was the port for Cyrene) to explore the local ruins, but this bit was cut short by a howling, freezing rainstorm, after which we flew back to Tripoli.

The next two days were occupied at Leptis Magna. It’s immense, breathtakingly so, both in sheer size, but also in the majesty of so many of the buildings. Wow! about sums it up. Apparently the Palace of Versailles was largely built with looted material from Leptis Magna. The guide went on to say: “And the French weren’t the only ones”, as our thoughts strayed to Virginia Water.

On the final day, we had a tour of Tripoli, including the impressive museum, presided over by an immense portrait of Gaddafi.

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

The Green Thing

In the queue at the supermarket, the cashier told an older woman that she should bring her own grocery bags because plastic bags weren’t good for the environment.

The woman apologised and explained, “We didn’t have the green thing back in my day.”

The clerk responded, “That’s our problem today. Your generation did not care enough to save our environment.”

She was right — our generation didn’t have the green thing in its day.

Back then, we returned milk bottles to the milkman, jam jars to the shop. They were sent back to the plant to be washed and sterilized and refilled, so we could use the same bottles over and over. So they really were recycled. But we didn’t have the green thing back in our day.

We walked up stairs, because we didn’t have an escalator in every store and office building. We walked to the shops and didn’t climb into a 300-horsepower machine every time we went out. But she was right. We didn’t have the green thing in our day.

Back then, we washed the baby’s nappies because we didn’t have the throw-away kind. We dried clothes on a line, not in an energy gobbling machine burning up 220 volts — wind and solar power really did dry the clothes. Kids got hand-me-down clothes from their brothers or sisters, not always brand-new clothing. Worn for years and lovely still: Rose’s jumpers go to Jill.

Back then, we had one TV, or radio in the house – not a TV in every room. And the TV had a small screen the size of a handkerchief, not a screen the size of the Isle of Wight. In the kitchen, we blended and stirred by hand because we didn’t have electric machines to do everything for us. When we packaged a fragile item to send in the post, we used a wadded up old newspaper to cushion it, not Styrofoam or plastic bubble wrap. We used a push mower that ran on human power and exercised by working so we didn’t need to go to a health club to run on treadmills that operate on electricity. But she’s right; we didn’t have the green thing back then.

Back then, people took the bus and children rode their bikes to school or walked. We had one electrical outlet in a room, not an entire bank of sockets to power a dozen appliances. And we didn’t need a computerised gadget to receive a signal beamed from satellites 2,000 miles out in space in order to find what was on at the pictures or book a holiday abroad using a gas guzzling aeroplane.

But isn’t it sad the current generation laments how wasteful we old folks were just because we didn’t have the green thing back then?

So because we are not as green as you think we should be:

Remember: Don’t make old people mad. We don’t like being old in the first place, and it doesn’t take much to annoy us.

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

Sunday Morning

We sit in the Meeting, silent,

Waiting for God.

I met Him once,

When, as a boy, I stood by a stile,

Where the path dips down into the trees.

I gazed across the valley, and saw, high in the clear blue air,

The long mountain ridge, etched against the infinite sky.

I marvelled at its beauty,

And for a while I was at one with Nature,

And with the glory of God’s creation.

The moment passed.

I went down the path into the wood,

And home to tea.

Then I was young and innocent,

But now I am grown old,

He and I may not meet so easily again.

Perhaps I may yet find Him

At the heart of a great chord of music,

In the clasp of a tiny hand,

In the texture of a rose.

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

Emblems

I have split my life into four compartments:

First, the period of education and the accumulation of knowledge.. But much more than that it was about learning to integrate with other members of the human race. But that’s the same for everyone – what was different for me? What was special? All I know is that I came away from that time with a passion for cricket, rugby and music. What is emblematic from these? I think I would settle for my recording of the Verdi Requiem. This was, and still is, an amazing experience, whether from within the performance, or just listening to it.

The second phase was military service, which had the effect of broadening the mind, with travel to places that I had never dreamt of visiting, and exposure to danger that reinforces one’s delight in just being alive. There is no doubt what is emblematic of this period – my RAF Flying Logbook, which I still have.

It is actually a red South African Air Force Logbook, since that is where I started flying training. It is a potted history in itself, from the first tentative entries to the final flurry of innumerable flights to remote areas of Burma, where the army on the ground would be waiting for their supplies. Part of the cover of the book is stained a pale yellow colour by the mildew that accumulated on it during the abominally hot, steamy monsoon.

The third phase was my bachelor existence in London, learning my trade in the years between the war and my marriage. This was not particularly memorable, and I regard it as having been a period of preparation for the fourth phase, which was my fifty-five years of married life. What is emblematic of that period? I cannot do better than nominate for that honour my two sons and my four granddaughters. What more could one ask?

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

The University Challenge Challenge

“Your letter was no problem for the unjustly maligned Royal Mail. As it happens, I agree with you. I also admire your ambition. I will get on to our producer at once, although you can’t expect any change until the next series. (assuming I prevail, which is by no means certain.) More power to your elbow. Jeremy Paxman”

And you know what? Subsequently, sometimes he did give the answer after the gong. And in 2021, sometimes he still does, bless him. It’s nice to know that occasionally you can make a tiny, tiny difference.

Welcome to Harry Hornet’s Parade

I’ve had some great times watching Watford FC at Vicarage Road and elsewhere. Never, though, when I took my daughter along…

When I was

A young boy

My father

He took me into Watford

To see the Hornets play

He said

“Son when

You grow up

Will you take

Your daughter into Watford

To see the Hornets play?”

He said “Will you

Depress her, Your daughter

And all the Vic’rage Roaders

With goals that we let in?

Because each time

You go there

With Alice

The Hornets will be rubbish

You’ll never see them win”

(to the tune of “Welcome to the Black Parade” by My Chemical Romance)

Aelwyn’s War

“I paused to look out of the window, and saw a line of bullet-holes erupting on the upper side of the wing, heading straight for me.”

Aelwyn in 1943

“It would be difficult to rate too highly the part played in the (Burma) campaign by the air…Under the direction of Sir Guy Garrod, and later under that of Sir Keith Park, air supply in Burma had reached a summit. It was done by imaginative planning and by resource, energy and courage in execution. The administrative staffs, the ground staffs and the allied air crews determined that whatever happened no failing of theirs should ever let the fighting troops down; the supply pilots doubled their hours of flying and staffs worked through the night. The result was a revolution in supply and in combat as profound as that created by the arrival of the internal combustion engine on the battlefield. Park wrote, “The armies advanced on the wings of the Air Force.””. (The Campaign in Burma, Frank Owen)

Like many veterans, my father Aelwyn didn’t often talk about his experiences during the war. But in 1999, as a project for a creative writing group, he wrote down these recollections from his time in the army and the RAF in WW2. When writing, he was looking at the events, large and small, which shaped the course of his life. The photographs, and their captions, are my additions.

380 Battery

We were a motley collection of recruits, melded in the space of a few weeks into a tolerably efficient set of four crews proudly manning a row of gleaming 3.7 inch anti-aircraft guns on the outskirts of London, together with the support teams, operating the predictor, the heightfinder and the spotter’s telescope. My job was to link all these with the command centre; this was a responsible job, which I enjoyed, and for which I carried one stripe and the exalted rank of unpaid acting Lance-Bombardier. Our one hour of glory came one night when we were operating a somewhat hit-and-miss method of firing. By day, we could see the target and make a fairly good shot at aiming for it using our instruments (not that there was much call for this at that time). At night, we would be told by a tracking unit at HQ where the enemy aircraft was expected to be, placing it somewhere inside a half-mile cube of air at a height of anything up to 20,000 feet. We would then aim for the centre of that cube, usually with no effect whatsoever. On this particular night, all four guns fired together, and we paused to search the sky. Suddenly there was a collective gasp from the fifty or so assembled men, as all four shell-bursts lit up the outlines of the German bomber, identified as a Heinkel by Smithy, our spotter, by the curve of the leading edge of its wing. The throbbing sound of the plane droned on, and I shouted to the crews to wait for the sound to reach us. Several seconds later, we heard the spatter of the four bursts; the sound of the aircraft faltered briefly, but then carried on. We told HQ our exciting news, but they were sceptical; later, however, we learnt that on that night a night-fighter had shot down a limping Heinkel, and 380 Battery was duly credited with a “half”.

I found army life, when we were not in action, a most depressing experience, largely due to the sharp distinction made between officers and other ranks. This came to a head when, one wet day, our section was ordered to move a large pile of wet sandbags from one part of a field to another. This was called “keeping them occupied”. When I asked the officer in charge what the point was of this particular exercise, I was blasted with the reply that I was not paid to think. The opportunity to transfer to the RAF shortly afterwards came as a blessed relief.

The Transfer

It was one of those occasions when my parents would drive from Dolgellau to Shrewsbury to meet me, usually on a Sunday, when there were no local trains, or in the evening, when my main line train ran too late to connect with the last “local”. I was on leave from my anti-aircraft unit in outer London. On the way home, my mother turned round from the front seat to ask how my application for an army commission was proceeding – a project close to her heart. Now was the time for me to break the news that I had recently applied for transfer to RAF flying duties, and I was due to attend an interview with the RAF the following week. The silence from the front seat seemed to go on for a long time; I think my parents had visualised me spending the rest of the war in comparative comfort and safety as an artillery officer, and here I was, throwing this away for the thrill (and danger) of flying Hurricanes or Spitfires. “Why?”, asked my mother. I explained that I wasn’t happy in the army, and thought I was capable of doing something more worthwhile.

So, the following week, I went to Bush House, sat a brief exam in English and Maths, and was interviewed by a Squadron-Leader. “So you want to be a pilot?” “Yes” I replied. “Do you know what an observer is?” he asked, and continued: “He’s the chap who gives the orders to the pilot, tells him where he is, and what course to fly. You scored full marks in your Maths test, so I think you’d be ideally suited to train as an observer. What do you think?” There was something in his tone of voice that suggested that I either became an observer or stayed in the army, so after a brief moment of hesitation, I agreed. This was one of those moments when I was aware that my life had been diverted on to a new course.

Ted

In June 1941, a throng of khaki-clad figures, eager to exchange their uniforms for blue, assembled one summer day at Lord’s Cricket Ground; Eton were playing Harrow that day, but neither group took any notice of the other. Eventually, we were marched down to a half completed block of flats in St. John’s Wood, facing Regents Park. Six of us were crammed into a ground floor room, sleeping on mattresses on the concrete floor. One of these was Ted. He was an unassuming chap, short, with black curly hair. He had been in searchlights, an activity then falling out of favour due to the development of radar. He and I became friendly, and on one occasion about three of us were invited to his parents’ house at Ealing for tea; he was obviously the apple of their eye.

We were posted together to Torquay where we were all drilled on the quayside, and where we were inducted into the arcane mysteries of the triangle of velocities, the basis of all air navigation. Ted developed a crush for a teenage girl who played the violin with her parents in a trio playing at teatime in a Torquay café. He drank his way through gallons of tea listening to her, and actually got to speak to her once before the trio packed up and moved away.

We became separated after my guardroom misdemeanour (below), but strangely met again at the Port Elizabeth flying school in South Africa, where he was two courses behind me; I forget how he came to be behind me in training, having left Torquay ahead of me. He had a special chum on his course, named Gregory; he seemed very defensive about this friendship, and it is only as I write that I realise why this might have been. After Port Elizabeth, I came home to the UK, while Ted went round Africa the other way to the Middle East; we didn’t keep in touch. Two years later, while in India, I received a letter from his parents, which they had sent to my home in Dolgellau. Ted had been killed in a horrendous road accident near Cairo, in which fourteen airmen had died. Such a waste; much worse, somehow, than being killed in action, which, in the situation we were in, was expected to happen to some of us.

The Guardroom Fire

Towards the end of my time at Torquay, I was on guard at the front door of the hotel by the harbour which served as our billet. It was two o’clock in the morning on a freezing December night, and ten paces behind me, in the front room of the hotel, roared a blazing coal fire. The temptation was too much; I had darted back to the fire to thaw out for no more than twenty seconds, when I heard the sound of boots approaching up the street. I scampered to the door, only to find that the Orderly Sergeant had arrived before me. The next day, I received the punishment of seven days confinement to barracks. Four days later, we were given two weeks embarkation leave, so my companions went off, leaving me to finish my period of punishment before being allowed to go. In the meantime, I had been selected to play rugby against a navy team at Devonport, in the course of which my collar-bone was fractured. So, instead of going on embarkation leave, I went home on sick leave with my arm in a sling. My misdemeanour, which had caused me to miss my original posting, had thus brought about a strange twist in my fortunes.

Training in South Africa

The war brought me into direct contact with a large number of new experiences. Extensive travel at Government expense was certainly one of them, including enduring the rigours of life sleeping in a hammock in the hold of a ship lumbering through stormy winter seas to South Africa.

In South Africa, 1942, while training as a navigator

I returned six months later in cabin accommodation as an RAF officer with my navigator’s wings; the hold of the ship on this occasion was occupied by Italian prisoners who, on warm nights, would gather on the lower deck and sing as only Italians (or perhaps Welsh) can.

In the meantime I had learnt the joy of flying, and the skill of navigating over the sea out of sight of land; it was later an exciting experience to navigate our own aircraft from Cornwall to North Africa and on to Egypt and India, all without any modern navigational aids – just with maps and instruments.

31 Squadron

It was not until February 1944 that I eventually arrived on an operational squadron. I flew in to the airfield at Agartala in East Bengal, and was made welcome by Squadron-Leader Bray, B-Flight Commander. He took me on a tour of the station; the camp was quiet – half the squadron were on the afternoon operation, and the other half were resting after the early morning shift. The officers’ quarters consisted of a long, low bamboo building, known as a basha, divided into ten or twelve sections, each furnished with a pair of rough Indian beds wreathed in mosquito netting. in front of one of these sat a scowling figure, his face half shaved, razor in hand, with a brush sitting in an enamel mug full of soapy water. Behind him, inside the basha, a wind-up gramophone was playing. “This”, said Peter Bray, “is Flying Officer Brockbank, the Squadron Navigation Officer”.

Flying Officer Brockbank in Agartala, 1944

The half-shaved figure looked up; I broke the silence with: “It’s good to hear a spot of Beethoven out here”. He put down his razor, and said: “At last! Someone on the Squadron who recognises Beethoven when he hears him”.

The next time we changed camp, I moved in to share a basha with him. Within a few months we were joint owners of all Beethoven’s symphonies on 78 rpm recordings. Seven years later, his sister and I were married.

Supplying the Chindits

In 1942 Japanese troops had forced their way northwards into Burma. At the end of that year Brigadier Orde Wingate, who had joined the staff of General Wavell in India, was given permission to form the Chindits, a group of soldiers who were to be trained in jungle raiding and guerrilla tactics. In February 1943, Wingate and 3,000 Chindits entered Burma. Their task was to disrupt Japanese communications, attack outposts and destroy bridges. The operation was very costly, and of the 2,000 who returned, 600 never recovered to fight again. However, before leaving Burma they had created clearings in the jungle between 100 and 200 miles behind the Japanese lines for use in any future operation.

In August 1943, Wingate met Winston Churchill and President Roosevelt and persuaded them to agree to expand the role of the Chindits. Wingate, now a major general, was given command of six brigades forming the 3rd Indian Division, and he returned to India to plan the next operation.

One day the pilots and navigators crowded into the briefing room. There was an expectant hush. We knew that some new operation was being planned, but what was it to be? Captain Smith, the Army Liaison Officer, came in accompanied by the Wing Commander and the two flight commanders. He silently unrolled a large map of Northern Burma and pinned it up on the board. “First of all”, he said, “I cannot emphasise too strongly that this is a top secret operation, and its very existence must not be breathed to anyone, however senior they may be.” An excited buzz swept around the room; what was it all about?

Smithy launched into his spiel: “Quiet, please! Last year, as you all know, General Wingate and his Chindits penetrated deep into Burma, behind the Japanese lines. One of their main objectives was to identify and prepare as far as possible, airstrips to be used in future operations. Three of these airstrips are shown in red on this map. In the last few days, troop-carrying gliders have been flown in carrying men and materials to prepare the airstrips to enable our Dakotas to land on them; and that is what you will be doing tonight. This Squadron will be flying to these two sites (pointing to the map) which have been christened Aberdeen and Broadway. We will be ferrying in a variety of cargoes, men, supplies, jeeps, light artillery, and ammunition. And, believe it or not, mules. Some of you may find yourself bringing back casualties. So far as we know, there has been no sign of Japanese activity near the airstrips, but some of the gliders had crashed on landing, and there were some casualties among the glider crews and their cargoes.”

About to release a glider over the Chin Hills. Many did not survive the dangerous descent into the jungle behind Japanese lines.

“Operation Thursday” was launched on 5th March 1944 (actually a Sunday). In the 1943 operation the Chindits had been on their own, but this time they were supported by the RAF. The first wave of troops was flown in by troop-carrying gliders which landed in the jungle clearings prepared the previous year. This was a very hazardous procedure, and there were many casualties as a result of crash landings. This process was not helped by the fact that the Japanese had discovered one of the clearings and scattered logs over its surface. These troops then cleared these areas to make them into landing strips fit to take the DC3 aircraft, And so the operation went on night after night, landing on these strips lit up only by a few oil flares, pouring in troops, weapons, ammunition.and food. We also brought out casualties. Over the next few months the Chindits destroyed Japanese roads, railways, bridges and convoys, and once again they suffered heavy losses.

It was an exhilarating time for the RAF crews being part of this ambitious and top secret operation, flying at night and landing behind the Japanese lines on dimly lit airstrips, unloading our cargo and haring back to our beds in India. It was also very hard work.

Aelwyn’s protractor and parallel rule

Carrying mules was an interesting experience. The aircraft would be fitted with bamboo stalls for four mules, and a ramp was laid up to the door of the aircraft. The efforts of the muleteers to persuade their mules to go up the ramp and into the dark interior of the aircraft were hilarious to the onlookers, although the fierce bucking of the animals and their flailing hooves were no joke to those within range.

A reluctant mule is led onto a plane

At the other end we kept well out of the way until the mules were unloaded and the stalls dismantled, before going home to our beds. I can assure you that there is no more obnoxious, pungent aroma than that of a mule’s urine, which would swill about the floor of the aircraft before disappearing into the fuselage below. On one occasion, when one of the aircraft was diverted on to the daily passenger and mail run the forward areas and Calcutta, a senior army officer announced “You know, I swear I can smell mules in here”. We looked at him pityingly – it was still a very hush-hush operation – and said “Why on earth would we carry mules in this aircraft? You must be mistaken. Sir”. He shook his head in sad disbelief.

In Kashmir, 1944

And so it started. Night after night, for several weeks, flying deep into the heart of Japanese controlled territory, landing in the dark on the airstrips, unloading the cargo, having a brief chat to the army lads on the ground, then getting the hell out of it back to our beds, back in India. Then, for several months more, dropping supplies to the army from the air as they spread out over the whole territory, disrupting Japanese communications to hinder their invasion of India further north and diverting their troops in the process.

At about this time, I had a letter from my mother, saying how comforting it was to know that everything was quiet in our theatre of operations. Well, I suppose in 1944 a little matter like the invasion of Europe seemed more important to the English newspapers than our spot of trouble thousands of miles away.

During my active service there were some unpleasant experiences, such as learning that some old friends and some present Air Force mates would not be seen again; enduring the steamy sweaty heat of the monsoon and its accompanying mosquitoes; or having Japanese machine-gunners popping off at me. Much better, though, was the good humour that pervaded most situations, and the sheer thrill of taking part in meaningful operational flights, mainly involved with flying army troops into Burma and keeping them supplied from the air.

Kohima

I imagine very few people now remember the battle for Kohima. To be truthful, very few people except those who were involved even knew of it at the time that it happened, from April to June 1944. But at the time, it was somewhat overshadowed, at least to those at home, by the Normandy invasion. Yet it was, in stragetic terms, as momentous an event as the battles at El Alamein and Stalingrad, if on a somewhat smaller scale.. In each case, the outcome was a reversal of the fortunes of war, turning back the tide of the hitherto victorious German and Japanese armies, initiating their retreat, and their ultimate defeat.

The RAF delivered food, water and ammunition by parachute to the Kohima garrison. Orde Wingate said “Bring in the goods, like Father Christmas, down the chimney.”

The Japanese had surged northwards through Burma heading for the roads and railways that led directly into India, and they had caught the British and Commomwealth forces unprepared. They captured the hill town of Kohima, the local capital of Nagaland, in the most north-easterly region of India. Nothing now lay between the Japanese and the plains of India – except, that is, for the small British garrison based in Kohima, who had been forced to retreat beyond the town. This contingent of the army, comprising 2,500 men of the 2nd Infantry Division received its orders – Kohima must be retaken at all costs – against a Japanese force of 15,000. It was a battle of bloody artillery duels, hand to hand skirmishes and bayonet attacks. And mud. And rats. The British fought almost to a standstill, with heavy casualties, until reinforcements arrived from India, from which point .the Japanese were driven slowly back, and forced to retreat back the way they had come.

From “The Campaign in Burma” by Frank Owen

One of the contributing factors to the success of the British soldiers was the constant supply of food and and ammunition dropped to them by the RAF, whereas the Japanese were running out of both ammunition and food. It was, frankly, gut wrenching to fly over the area, seeing whole hillsides with their trees totally denuded of leaves, knowing of all the mayhem that was going on on the ground beneath.

A monument was later raised to the men of the 2nd Infantry Division, bearing the words: “When you go home, tell them of us and say ‘For their tomorrow we gave our today””.

Routine

There was no time for fear; if fear was to come, it would come later.

Our routine had become established over many months. Early in the morning we would wake up, emerge from our mosquito netting, have breakfast and attend the briefing. We would be told the location of the morning’s target, a jungle clearing somewhere in Northern Burma where we would drop supplies of food and ammunition to units of the 14th Army on the ground. After drawing a few straight lines on the map, we would take off, head for a convenient gap in the high ridge of the Chin Hills, and descend to the DZ, the dropping zone. The pilot would make a quick decision on the best way to fly the four or five low-level circuits it took to drop our one-ton load. We would start our circuits, with the crew taking off the door, and piling up the heavy packages in the doorway, attaching any parachute lines to the inside of the aircraft. When the pilot rang the bell, we would all give a great heave, and the load would topple out into space, and with a bit of luck, land within the DZ.

Unloading over the drop zone

While the pilot made each subsequent circuit the rest of the crew ran up and down the fuselage, lugging the packages down to the door and stacking them in time for the next bell. After the last drop, we would permit ourselves the luxury of looking out of the open door and waving to the army lads on the ground; we didn’t envy them.

One fine morning in 1944 we flew off into the high clear air of East Bengal, over the Chin Hills and down to a new DZ that we had not visited before. where a section of our army was dug in facing a similarly entrenched unit of the Japanese army. The open space for the DZ was immediately to the rear of our front line, but close behind that was a ring of sharply rising hills which ruled out any possibility of making low-level circuits in that direction. There was nothing for it but to make our circuits over the Japanese front line. This decision was inevitably accompanied by the silent prayer that if we should crash-land, please let it be on our side of the line. Routine took over as we piled up our load. What we had not bargained for was that, as our large, slow, lumbering Douglas DC3 passed low over the Japanese line, some enterprising machine gunners would turn their weapons skyward and let fly. On the second circuit, while we were scampering up and down the fuselage, we heard a series of metallic clanging sounds. I paused to look out of the window, and saw a line of bullet-holes erupting on the upper side of the wing, heading straight for me. It all happened so quickly, yet I seemed to be watching it in slow motion. The line of holes stopped before they reached me; I made a mental note to worry about it later, and returned to my packages.

We had landed back at base, and were taxiing along the runway to our dispersal point, when we became aware of the smell of petrol. The pilot immediately stopped and switched off the engines, as he had had a mental vision of sparks from the exhaust meeting catastrophically with petrol vapour. We piled out in something of a hurry, to find high-grade octane pouring on to the runway from a bullet-hole in the underside of the fuselage. You couldn’t really blame the Japanese, they had only been doing their job.

Fear? The immediate experience of fear had been thwarted by the demands of an urgent routine, and by not knowing, until the danger had passed, of the hole in our petrol tank. Fear did return, briefly, under the mosquito netting that night, but it was softened by having been a shared experience. Tomorrow, the routine would take over once more.

Acknowledgements to “The Campaign in Burma”, Frank Owen, 1946 and “Wings of the Phoenix”, HMSO, 1949

Blackadder Goes Forth – “Goodbyeee” – Television’s finest half hour?

Being in period, the Blackadder series – like Dad’s Army – has aged much better than sitcoms with a contemporary setting. Only its technical quality and modest production values show its age: in my view the script and acting quality have never been bettered.

The creativity of the cast of the final series, Blackadder Goes Forth, caused friction in production. Rowan Atkinson, Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie were already established comedians in their own right, accustomed to writing comedy as well as performing it: they could hardly be expected to act their parts without suggesting improvements. Co-writer Ben Elton said that by opening it up, they allowed the cast to question every aspect of the script. This collaborative process achieved outstanding results, but the other writer, Richard Curtis clearly found it frustrating, telling The Times in 1989:

“Everybody on the show thinks they can put in good jokes, despite the fact that Ben Elton and I think there are already quite a few good ones in there to start with. It does usually end up funnier, but it’s time to do something over which I have more control.”

And in the 2008 documentary Blackadder Rides Again, Curtis recalled:

“They would literally sit around for the entire time discussing the script… sometimes we would just say to them ‘if you stood up and tried to act this script out, you would find out things about it.'”

Some historians have criticised it for presenting a critical view of the war, reinforcing the popular perception of “lions led by donkeys”. Broadcaster and historian Max Hastings has called the common British view of the war “the Blackadder take on history”, while military historian Richard Holmes wrote in his book The Western Front: “Blackadder’s aphorisms have become fact… A well-turned line of script can sometimes carry more weight than all the scholarly footnotes in the world.”

And when Blackadder Goes Forth was broadcast in 1989, some felt that it trivialised World War 1 by turning it into comedy. But the sixth and final episode in the series, Goodbyeee, aired shortly before Remembrance Sunday, emphatically answered those critics. The very first line hints that events are taking a darker turn, as Blackadder takes a phone call:

“Ah, Captain Darling. Tomorrow at dawn. Oh, excellent. See you later, then. Bye.”

There is still room for comedy. When George argues that the war has been worth it, Blackadder responds:

“How could it possibly be worth it? We’ve been sitting here since Christmas 1914, during which millions of men have died, and we’ve advanced no further than an asthmatic ant with some heavy shopping.”

The humour acquires a poignant edge, as George realises he is the last survivor of the Cambridge Tiddlywinkers:

George: Well, er, Jacko and the Badger bought it at the first Ypres front, unfortunately — quite a shock, that. I remember Bumfluff’s house-master wrote and told me that Sticky had been out for a duck, and the Gubber had snitched a parcel sausage-end and gone goose over-stump frogside.

Blackadder: Meaning…?

George: I don’t know, sir, but I read in the Times that they’d both been killed.

Blackadder makes an attempt to feign insanity, sporting underpants on his head and a pencil up each nostril, and saying “Wibble”. He promptly backs down when he overhears General Melchett approaching with the words:

Is this genuinely mad? Or has he simply put his underpants on his head and stuffed a couple of pencils up his nose? That’s what they all used to do in
the Sudan. I remember I once had to shoot a whole platoon for trying that.

Blackadder offers an analysis of the causes of the war:

Blackadder: You see, Baldrick, in order to prevent war in Europe, two superblocs developed: us, the French and the Russians on one side, and the
Germans and Austro-Hungary on the other. The idea was to have two vast opposing armies, each acting as the other’s deterrent. That way there could never be a war.

Baldrick: But this is a sort of a war, isn’t it, sir?

Blackadder: Yes, that’s right. You see, there was a tiny flaw in the plan.

George: What was that, sir?

Blackadder: It was bollocks.

Baldrick, saddened at the animal friends he has lost, gives a plain and heartfelt speech against the war – the simplest of soldiers has worked out that it is a pointless waste of lives:

Baldrick: Why can’t we just stop, sir? Why can’t we just say, “No more killing, let’s all go home”? Why would it be stupid just to pack it in, sir, why?

George: Now, now, now, look here, you just stop that talk right now, Private. It’s, it’s absurd, it’s Bolshevism, and it wouldn’t work anyway.

Baldrick: Why not, sir?

George: “Why not?” Well, what do you mean? “Why wouldn’t it work?” It–
It wouldn’t work, Private…It wouldn’t work because, there, well, now, you just get on with polishing those boots, all right?

We see Blackadder following this exchange closely. He clearly thinks Baldrick has a point. And the comedy gets suddenly darker in the next scene, where General Melchett hands Captain Darling his commission, meaning that he must join the others going “over the top” at dawn.

Tim McInnerny as Captain Darling

Darling is the pivot on which the episode turns from comedy to tragedy. Up to this point in the series, he has been Blackadder’s enemy, the subject of contempt – a sycophantic bureaucrat, keeping a safe distance behind the front line. But we feel his fear intensely as we see him literally pleading for his life, while Melchett – inadvertently or wilfully – misinterprets his protests:

Darling: No, sir…You’re, you’re not listening, sir. I’m begging you, please — for the sake of all the times I’ve helped you with your dicky bows and dicky bladder – please don’t make me…

Melchett: …make you go through the farewell debagging ceremony in the mess? Heh! No, I’ve spared you that, too, you touchingly sentimental young
booby! Look: no fuss, no bother – the driver is already here.

Darling has been painted as a coward, but we understand his terror at this sudden turn of events. The nightmare mood of this scene is underlined by Melchett’s unsettling moustache net, and by the dramatic lighting portraying the arriving driver as a figure of doom.

Back in the trench, as the time to go over the top approaches, fear starts to take hold, even in the breezy and mindlessly patriotic George, and the simple Baldrick:

George: Sir?

Blackadder: Yes, Lieutenant?

George: I’m scared, sir.

Baldrick: I’m scared too, sir.

George: I mean, I’m the last of the tiddlywinking leapfroggers from the golden summer of 1914. I don’t want to die. I’m really not overkeen on dying
at all, sir.

As we enter the final sequence, the most moving speech is left to Captain Darling, on his arrival in the trench, when Blackadder asks him how he is feeling:

Erm, not all that good, Blackadder — rather hoped I’d get through the whole show; go back to work at Pratt & Sons; keep wicket for the Croydon gentlemen; marry Doris… Made a note in my diary on my way here. Simply says, “Bugger.”

Blackadder resists the temptation to mock or gloat over Darling, simply replying “Well, quite”. The adversaries are reconciled by fear. And in this moment, we are all Darling. Dislikeable though he is, we cannot but feel his tragedy: why should he be denied this modest, contented future?

As they wait in the trench to go over the top, they notice that the British guns have stopped firing, Darling concludes that the war is over: “Thank God! We lived through it! The Great War – 1914-1917.” (by now this dark joke might now require an explanatory caption: “The war did not end until 1918”). Blackadder has to point out to the men that the guns have only been silenced so they can make their attack.

We hear the chilling anonymous order: “On the signal, company will advance!” Blackadder’s final piece of caustic wit is aimed not at Baldrick, George or Darling, but at the war itself. There is no time to listen to Baldrick’s cunning plan:

Well, I’m afraid it’ll have to wait. Whatever it was, I’m sure it was better than my plan to get out of this by pretending to be mad. I mean, who would have noticed another madman round here?

When Blackadder says “Good luck, everyone” before blowing his whistle for the advance, he is sincere. We’re not laughing any more.

In the famous final scene we see all the main characters (except General Melchett) running into action with explosions around them. The scene is shown in slow motion, accompanied by a haunting, echoing piano slowly playing the Blackadder theme. It then fades into a tranquil poppy field, leaving us to draw our conclusions about their fate. Following the laughter that has gone before, this is devastating.

It was not written that way. The final scene had been hastily filmed on an unconvincing polystyrene set: furthermore the cast members, having once clambered through the obstructions, smoke and explosions in the dark, feared injury and refused to do another take. The resulting amateurish footage undermined the intended poignancy of the scene, so in editing, the episode’s director Richard Boden had the idea of using slow motion and fading into the poppy field with the sound of birdsong. The end credits were omitted.

During the filming of the episode, Rowan Atkinson described sharing his character’s dread of impending death and feeling a “knot in the pit of my stomach”, something he had not experienced before. By the end, we each have that knot in our stomach. To my mind, this is the finest half hour of television ever made.

And yes, I do mean better than the one with Del Boy falling through the bar.

The Gem of Tanzania

In December 2009 I sat in the Birmingham office of an accountancy firm, turning in my hands a gemstone which had been valued at eleven million pounds. I had the chance to buy it. How much should I bid?

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

On 10th March 2009, Wrekin Construction, a private civil engineering business based in Shropshire with about 500 staff, collapsed into administration, owing creditors over £20m. Its main asset was a 2.1 kilogram lump of crystal, grandly described as the Gem of Tanzania in the company’s accounts, where it was valued at a princely £11m.

The stone had been discovered by Ideal Standards, a company mining near Arusha, a small town in northern Tanzania. Michael Hart-Jones, an investor in Ideal, bought the gem in 2002 for R200,000, or about £13,000.

Hart-Jones was a colourful character. He had been convicted of illegal diamond trading (wrongly, he said) in South Africa in the early 1980s. Then, according to official testimony from Ahmad Kabbah, the elected president of Sierra Leone restored to power in 1998, Hart-Jones had struck a deal with the illegal junta there the previous year to exploit its mineral resources, in return for facilitating a $1bn loan for the junta. Finally, a BBC2 Newsnight report from 2006 featuring Richard E Grant suggested that Hart-Jones had promoted a scam in Swaziland (now Eswatini) selling goat serum as an Aids treatment.

Mr Hart-Jones exported the ruby to the UK in 2002, but initially struggled to find a buyer. The next recorded owner was Tony Howarth, director of a foreign exchange company. Howarth sold the stone to Shropshire based businessman David Unwin in 2006, through a deal also involving land and Rolls-Royce cars, which valued the gem at £300,000. The gem was recorded at the same value on the balance sheet of Unwin’s company Tamar Group that year.

At the end of 2006…

Tamar Holdings took over Wrekin Construction, and the gem received an astonishing revaluation to £11m in 2007:

…and at the end of 2007. Hey presto!

Wrekin had acquired, at a cost of £11m in shares, what it described as “a ruby gem stone known as the “Gem of Tanzania”’ from its shareholder, Tamar Group Limited. The notes to the accounts went on to say that the fair value of the gemstone was determined by a professional valuer at the Istituto Gemmologico Italiano.

As it was purchased using shares rather than cash, the inclusion of the gemstone in the balance sheet at £11m helped raise Wrekin’s net assets from a negative £7.6m to a positive £6.3m. This made the company appear a more creditworthy partner for suppliers, customers and its bank, Royal Bank of Scotland.

Wrekin’s auditors for the nine month period ended 31 December 2007 were Ashgate Corporate Services Limited, a small Derby firm who had recently succeeded “big four” firm KPMG as auditors – a change which might itself have been read as a warning sign. Ashgate might have been surprised to see that a civil engineering business based in Shropshire, with turnover for the period of £60.9m and profit of £1.6m (against a loss of £9.5m the previous year) had decided to make a huge investment so far outside its core business.

A more alert auditor might have asked a few questions: most obviously, why would a construction company invest £11m in a gemstone? Was this a genuine arms-length transaction with its shareholder? Why had they chosen to get it valued in Italy? And why had nobody heard of this amazing gemstone, when the highest previous verifiable price for a ruby – the 8.62 carat Graff ruby sold by Christie’s in 2006 – was a mere $3.6m?

Ashgate were presented with a letter, purporting to be from the Istituto Gemmologico Italiano, confirming the valuation, and containing a photograph of the gemstone. That was good enough for them, and they duly signed off the accounts.

It is not known whether RBS’s decision to grant a £4.25m overdraft facility was influenced by the borrower’s ownership of the gem. According to a former Wrekin representative, RBS had lent the company £2.8m of that at the time of administration: perhaps they saved themselves the last £1.45m by finally taking a good look at Wrekin’s accounts.

Nor is it known what triggered the collapse of Wrekin Construction into administration, but it may be that bank lenders pulled the plug when they finally inspected the company’s balance sheet and saw what was propping it up. Initially Wrekin blamed RBS for its predicament because the bank would not extend credit to cover cash-flow problems.

Jonathan Guthrie of the Financial Times pieced together the story, and interesting and bizarre details emerged over the months of 2009.

Loridana Prosperi, a gemmologist at the head office of the Istituto Gemmologico Italiano in Milan, said of the valuation letter: “That is impossible, because we were on holiday on August 31 2007.” She said IGI never assessed the price of gemstones, only the quality – and the Valenza office did not even do that. It was soon confirmed that the valuation letter had been forged, but it was not established by whom.

Ernst and Young had been appointed as administrators, and they appointed GVA Grimley as their agents to dispose of Wrekin’s assets, of which the highest profile – if not the most valuable – was the gem. Ernst & Young consulted with experienced gemmologists, and determined that the ruby was opaque and of insufficient quality for faceting, meaning that it could be cut into smaller rounded, gems – or cabochons – but not into jewels with flat facets with an attractive sparkle.

They concluded however that if was of “sufficient quality and rarity” in its uncut state “to be of interest to public and private collections”. “It is not possible” they continued, “to place a value on the uncut stone, given its unique nature and consequent absence of comparable data. Any attempt to provide a potential range of valuations may prejudice future realisations”. In other words, because of its notoriety, the stone now had the potential to far exceed its value as a regular gem at auction.

It seems that top London auction houses rejected the gem because they deemed its value too low. Ernst & Young were reduced to advertising the sale in Rock ‘n’ Gem – a quarterly UK magazine, read by mineral collectors and devotees of “healing” crystals. The fact that Ernst & Young sought to sell the stone as a specimen was taken to imply that they were doubtful whether it could be cut profitably into individual jewels.

Hatton Garden gem dealer Marcus McCallum’s view was sought: “The Gem of Tanzania may not be worth the cost of the advert. A two kilo lump of anyolite (low grade ruby) is probably worth about £100. A valuation of £11m would be utterly bonkers.” Wrekin owner David Unwin was said by his lawyer to be “devastated” by the damage to his reputation caused by doubts over the value of the gem.

On behalf of Ernst and Young, GVA Grimley duly initiated an auction of the gem. The Financial Times saw it like this:

We should not, however, remember the gem as having failed to cut it as a polished crown jewel. It should instead be remembered as a staggeringly successful healing crystal. Though its mystical powers failed to prevent Wrekin Construction from folding, its mere presence on the company books clearly made group finances look and feel much healthier.

Like most new-age medicine, the stone derived its power from the faith of those who believe – in this case in its intrinsic ability to rise perpetually in value. The Gem of Tanzania was a magnificent placebo asset. In these straitened times, there must be many who would benefit from the gem’s awesome power. At the very least, the stone would make an excellent – if rather unattractive and unwieldy – paperweight. So, who will start the bidding?

I recognised a call to arms: here comes my part in this drama. 2009 had been an excellent year, and I had some cash to “invest”. The opportunity to acquire something recently so spectacularly valued was too good to ignore. The quality of the stone as a gem may have been questionable, but it was famous as the basis for a world-beating piece of bullshit. And my wife had a big birthday coming up. That could make a wonderful surprise gift. Er, couldn’t it?

I had very little idea where to pitch my bid: I can only repeat in my defence that, fuelled by the prospect of an excessive City bonus, I was feeling flush. I indicated what I regarded as a substantial bid to GVA Grimley. Within a few days they contacted me to advise me that I was among the top ten bidders, and offered me an appointment to view the gem.

So on a snowy 21st December I bunked off the morning at work (it wasn’t very busy) to attend Ernst and Young’s Birmingham office at 9:30 am to view the gemstone. Two men in suits ushered me into the presence of the stone. which I was allowed to handle. I solemnly turned it over for inspection. Of course I’m no gem expert, so I was none the wiser – it was a large, rough, reddish lump of rock, by no means beautiful.

They asked me if I wanted to increase my bid, and I did, slightly, to £5,679.00. As requested I left it with them for six weeks, while they continued to solicit bids and while the creditors’ committee decided on its course of action.

The 2nd February deadline passed and I had heard nothing. Growing impatient after a while, I contacted Jonathan Guthrie – journalists at the FT were still surprisingly accessible at the time, even supplying their email addresses under some articles – telling him that I had put in a bid and heard nothing back. I speculated that the administrators might have received better bids – or perhaps they were dithering about whether to accept the best bid. I was hoping that the FT would be able to flush out what had happened. Mr Guthrie did not disappoint: this appeared after a few days:

Financial Times, February 17 2010

No prizes for identifying the “bidder anxious to know the outcome of the auction”. I thanked Mr Guthrie with the message “Anonymity at last!”

I can be a sore loser if I suspect the playing field has not been level, and wondered whether the new owner, Tim Watts, might have served on the Creditors’ Committee as his company Network Group was owed “several hundred thousand pounds” by Wrekin. This would have given him sight of all the bids, and given him “last looks” – i.e. the opportunity to enter a final winning bid just higher than the best on the table.

When I raised this question with Ernst and Young, they said in a carefully worded reply that “at no point during the Administration has Tim Watts been a member of the Creditors’ Committee” but that “following the receipt of this (successful) offer a member of the Creditors’ Committee declared a connection to the source of the bid, and from this point forward they had no further involvement in the decision making process to sell the Gem.”

Fair enough, but this still left open the possibility that the Committee member who declared his connection could have been advising the successful bidder of the progress of the auction. However, the Joint Administrator stated that he had “no reason to believe that the purchaser of the Gem was aware of the bidding position of other parties.” It struck me, though, that a Committee member who had relayed the auction prices to a contact would be unlikely to advertise the fact.

More persuasively, Ernst and Young advised me that my bid was the third highest in the auction, so that even without the winning bid, I would still not have been successful. So it was time for me to let it go: Mr Watts’ company had, after all, lost a substantial amount of money in the collapse of Wrekin Construction, and was merely trying to recoup some of it: furthermore my £5,679 was not close to his winning bid of £8,010. His was just better pitched, although it would still be interesting to know the level of the underbid.

Mr Watts continued to be bullish about the value of his new acquisition. He said “I got a jeweller friend of mine to look at it, and he instantly spotted around twenty beautiful deep red rubies on the surface.” Based on his friend’s valuation, Watts said the ruby could be worth anything between £300,000 and £2m.

But he went on to say that the only way to know for sure will be to bring in an expert: “We have identified that we are in need of a gentleman from a mining company in South Africa to come and join us at a dinner event to take it apart. We will have a little meal for the board of directors, with a bottle of 1948 ruby port which we still have in the cellar, and he will sit and chip away all night and we will watch the rubies fall out like pomegranate seeds.”

Disappointingly, this never happened. Although he estimated breaking up the stone would generate a return of at least £50,000, he kept the stone intact, believing, on the basis of interest from enthusiasts in the US, that he could get much more by selling the stone intact.

He eventually decided to to keep it, and was quoted in 2011 saying “If I ever get down to my last fiver and need a good bottle of Shiraz then I might do something with the ruby. For the moment I am going to keep it.”

In December 2013 Wrekin owner David Unwin was disqualified as serving as a company director for ten years: two other directors were also served bans.

And, if the radio silence on the subject for the last ten years is any guide, Mr Watts has not received an offer for the gem which has tempted him to sell the gem, and he still owns the fabled Gem of Tanzania. One day we might have a better idea of its true value, which might require someone to break it apart first. But that would be a shame. We need some mystery in our lives.

Rhys Jones in the Battle of Normandy

My father’s cousin, Rhys Jones (1903-1974) was called up in 1941, and served as a tank driver during the Battle of Normandy, landing on Gold Beach on D-Day, June 6th 1944. He set down his account of the war in about 1966, after retiring from running a shop in Llanuwchllyn in Wales. He wrote in Welsh, although he had been educated in English from the age of seven. His younger brother Arthur – who also fought in the Battle of Normandy – translated it into English – “a strict copy of the original, with no add-ons”, as he put it. There are some take-offs, however: Arthur said that he left out some sections or toned down the English translation to make it less disturbing to read.

Many thanks to Rhys’s daughter Mair and Arthur’s daughter Gwerfyl for permitting me to publish this on Ramblings. Mair cautions that “there are some inaccuracies in the telling…these were long ago, though very vivid , memories for him. The sequence of events is not always correct.” But this is a powerful, detailed and sometimes harrowing account of one man’s war, which doesn’t always show his fellow soldiers in a good light. It is left entirely in Rhys’s own voice, as translated by Arthur.

The story of Trooper Rhys Jones 7941218 of the 24th Lancers and 44th Royal Tank Regiment

Rhys Jones in 1944/45

When in 1941 I received my calling up papers and a postal order for the sum of five shillings, it was the equivalent of an earthquake in the lives of our small family. I was 38 years old, a sales representative by trade and lived, with my wife May and daughter Mair who was four years old, at Porthcawl near Bridgend, South Wales, a regular chapel goer and superintendent of the chapel’s Sunday School.

I was not a conscientious objector although I had a deep respect for the true objector, particularly the Quakers, but I had to face reality because the German Jews were people like ourselves and they were slaughtered in their thousands, therefore the time had come to stand, come what may, no matter what happened to family or skin. It was with a very heavy heart that I handed over the keys of the Austin 10 to my successor and with my wife and daughter took the bus to Bridgend to catch the train to Tidworth, and emotions ran high as I got on the train and left them on the platform. I was very open to these emotions and I had to fight to keep them under control, but like a cat who is determined to come into the house if you open the door a fraction it’s in like a flash, and there is a quiver in the lips and voice and tiny hot pokers behind the eyes, so that people realize that it’s not a strong man standing before them but a very emotional creature. But by telling myself off and blowing hard into a handkerchief I was able to control myself and turn to watch the countryside roll by.

When we reached Swindon I had to change trains. I could see several other men and youths who were on their way to swell the legions of the British Army that day. It turned out that there were 75 of us, many in my age group, the rest the 18-20 age group. I found out that 15 of them were Jones’s and that the group’s previous occupations varied from coal miners to actors. We were eventually kitted out and formed into two squads, and after a pep talk from the Colonel who told us if we passed our preliminary training in 6 weeks instead of the normal 12 we would be eligible for a week’s leave. We were ready to oblige!!

One thing caused me much anguish. I found out that I was the original wooden soldier. When the order came to fall in on the marker my muscles stiffened and my legs and arms lost all semblance of coordination. In hindsight I was probably trying too hard, but the fact remained I was hopelessly inadequate on the square. The answer was to bury myself in the centre rank and try and attract as little attention as possible. I was sweating profusely and had blisters on my heels, which eventually turned septic. I went to the M.O. and was excused marching to my and the squad’s huge relief. The leave was safe!!

In my barrack room I had two Welsh lads in the beds on either side Will Jones from Tonypandy and Alf Phillips from Mountain Ash who used to sing ‘How deep is the night’ and ‘Trees’ alternately. Alf’s voice was nothing to write home about but Will had a glorious voice.

I had many chats with Will particularly about the depression years in the 1920’s and 30’s and how he tried to keep body and soul together for himself and family. He spoke of how he and his ‘butty’ went to the Midlands to try and raise money- he did the singing and his friend collected the money. One warm afternoon they were in one of Birmingham’s main streets and when they came to a busy pub they decided to stop and try their luck. Will began singing and after a bar or two the ‘butty’ went in. Will finished his solo and as an encore started singing ‘Cwm Rhondda’. His friend came out looking well pleased, and they went up a side street to count the money and found that there was almost a pound there. Wil asked shyly ‘How did I sound’. Oh’ came the reply ‘Once I got through the door, there was so much noise I couldn’t hear a note!’ Unfortunately they discovered that Will had a serious eye defect and that was the end of his military career.

After a month’s training we were ready to do our first guard duty. Everything that could be blancoed was blancoed, the brasses shone brightly as did the boots. When we got to the guardroom the Orderly Sergeant had a shock – out of the twelve of us there were eleven Jones’s. My partner on duty was a Hugh Jones, a former clerk in the Municipal Office in Merthyr. On the 10-12 guard after 10.30 pm we had to stop everyone, and anyone without a pass was taken to the guardroom. I found that my partner was (a) extremely conscientious (b) slightly hard of hearing (c) had a lively imagination. He insisted that as he was the senior soldier, the responsibility was his. He was 7941215 Jones Hugh, I was 7941218 Jones R and therefore junior!. During the first spell of duty he failed to hear footsteps approaching until I told him and with the command ‘keep me covered’ jumped out to meet the foe. ‘Halt who goes there’ he cried. ‘Friend’ came the reply. ‘Advance to be recognized’ and the Sergeant Major appeared. ‘Pass please’ said Hugh ‘I haven’t got one I’ve only been to the Mess’ came the reply. You must come to the guardroom’ said Hugh and escorted the S.S.M. who was muttering imprecations to the guardroom. Very conscientious was our Hugh. On our second spell of duty, it was our duty to call the duty cooks. With difficulty we found the barrack room and in Hugh went to turn on the lights. There were about fifty men in the place but we had no idea who to wake, so Hugh shook the nearest to hand. Talk about bedlam as a stream of abuse hit him. We were told later that the men on duty had a towel draped over the bottom of the bed, but no one had told us!! This was the only time I shared duty with this Hugh Jones, and he receded into the mists of time!

There was another Hugh Jones in the squad and with Alun Griffiths the three of us became great pals. This Hugh came from a village near Dolgellau in North Wales and Alun from Ponterwyd near Aberystwyth, and I had a high regard for both. By this time we had finished with the square bashing and had moved on to driving, which suited me much better. After wheeled transport we went on to Bren gun carriers and then to tanks, Valentines and Matildas to start with. The three of us were already proficient drivers before joining up and had no difficulty in adapting to tanks, but Hugh was also mechanically minded and when the chance came to join a Cadre instruction course with the chance of a Home posting, Hugh whose wife was expecting a child took the exam and passed with ease, and so we lost Hugh to the Cadre.

Alun and I went on to the gunnery, firing everything from revolvers to the Besa (or the Beezer) as it was called – the heavy machine gun in the tanks. Both of us did very well. Then a weeks course on W/T and then we were ready for leave again. Before going on leave we received the news that the Cadre Course was too full and Hugh was back with us again, albeit three weeks behind.

After the leave came the posting. Thirteen of us were posted to the 24th Lancers. Shortly afterwards another posting went to the Middle East, among them Hugh. Before we leave Hugh whom we cannot allow to be swallowed up by the mists. We heard, when we were in Whitby, that he had been killed, but it later transpired that he was a prisoner of war. I met him after the war and he said when being questioned after being captured the German officer asked him if he was Welsh and where he came from and when he replied Dolgellau the officer said he knew it well because he used to stay at Barmouth – ten miles away! Shortly afterwards the tank went off with six of the prisoners on the back, the remainder, Hugh included, were told to follow in the tanks tracks. Of course as soon as they could the remainder went the other way and soon came to the British lines. In about a week they were captured again. They were shipped to Italy where they remained in a P.O.W. camp until the Italians gave up. Before the Germans arrived Hugh and a friend escaped to the mountains until the end of the war. If he had not tried for the cadre class he would have been with Alun and myself for three years before we went to the cauldron that was Normandy on D-Day. Remembering that, maybe he was better off where he was.

Back now almost to the start, we were almost like the Three Musketeers. One hot afternoon we were sitting on the grass having a lecture on gas warfare and half asleep. I heard a soft tenor voice reciting a Welsh hymn! He stopped after a couple of lines and I was able to help him. That is how I met Alun Griffiths from Ystumtuen, Ponterwyd, Aberystwyth. Welsh speaking, a fervent Welsh Nationalist whose heroes were Saunders Lewis and John Morgan Jones, Aberystwyth. Saunders Lewis’ articles in ‘Y Faner’ were the chief items of arguments between us. Hugh used to listen to us arguing with an smile on his face when the arguments became fierce. To my mind Saunders Lewis was like an angry wasp stinging indiscriminately. In Germany he would have long been a poor bit of soap and in Russia would have excavated his weight several times over in the salt mines. He was a great dramatist and a distinguished author – though I must admit that most of his writings went over my head. Of course all these arguments and discussions used to draw the attention of others in the room and some used to say that we should only speak English in the British Army. We used to counter that we were perfectly ready to go home and leave them fight their own battles, but that we would continue to speak our mother tongue. One, Corporal Bennet, said that all minor languages should be outlawed and everyone should speak English only. A few Scotsmen bridled at this and one Cockney asked ‘What’s wrong with them, I like to hear them jabbering’. Three or four English lads backed him up and with that Bennet gave up – sunk without trace!!

Early one morning thirteen of us left for the north. We bade Hugh and the rest farewell. On leaving Tidworth (I never saw the place again) we journeyed north through York to Scarborough and waited there for a lorry to take us to Whitby and it was a blessed relief to arrive. Next day we were allocated to various squadrons. Four of us went to B Squadron including Alun and myself. The Squadron Leader was Major Fitzhugh who then further segregated us into troops, Alun went to the second and I to the third. The troop leader was away and a few days elapsed before I saw him. To say that he was disappointed in me is an understatement. I was too old, not tall enough, but he was prepared to give me a chance to reach the high standards he expected before getting rid of me. He was very haughty and I was surprised to learn that he was a dog breeder in civilian life.

Anyway in a couple of weeks time the squadron went down to Pembroke for test firing, leaving us behind to guard the family silver and came back with an odd tale about our officer. During a misfire the gunner after attempting twice to fire had to wait a few seconds and then open the breech. The loader then had to take the dud out of the breech and hand it over to the tank commander who was to throw it out of the turret. This is what happened in Pembroke. There was a misfire and when the loader took out the shell there was no one there to pass it to, the poor loader had to struggle out himself with the dud, fortunately it did not go off and although the incident was hushed up, the officer was out of favour with the C.O. for some time.

We move forward three years and by now the officer was a three pipper and second in command of ‘C’ Squadron, we were near a village called St Pierre. ‘C’ went to assist some infantry while we were in reserve and listening to the radio traffic on the headsets, A call for help came from one of the troops whose officer had been injured. We heard the C.O. ordering the second in command to go and assist and he answered ‘Roger Wilco Out’. Then Charlie Baker twice asked to report my signals, but no reply. It turned out that as soon as he got out of sight he had ordered his tank to lie up and ignored all signals. When the squadron pulled back,someone went to look for him and that was the end for that officer

Back to Whitby. There was one other Jones I should refer to. Lewis Cuthbert Jones was about my age from a well known family in Neath. He had had a good education and had been in Persia with one of the oil companies. He had been a sergeant in the Home Guard. We called him Lewis or L.C. but he was called Cuthbert at home. He was a lovely man and most interesting when in a good mood, but was prone to deep depression when he used to turn his head to the wall and nobody could console him. Outside the camp I had little to do with him. He had much more money than I did and he was fond of hard liquor and so the division was natural. I was sorry to hear that he eventually succumbed to his depression. In his company I got to know the meaning of ‘charming. He went to Squadron A and I saw very little of him afterwards.

I’ve mentioned Alun without giving much detail. He was about five foot eight tall, blond haired and blue eyed and the picture I have of him is him half lying on his bed writing with a long stemmed pipe in his mouth almost resting on his stomach and scratching his cheek with his fingernail. He was always ready to help and many times helped to get me ready to go on guard-the job I hated most. He was a good debater and thought the world of Aberystwyth. I was stupid enough once to praise Whitby in comparison to Aberystwyth. The blue eyes flashed and I was overwhelmed by a torrent of words, and there was nothing for it but to make a ‘strategic’ withdrawal! He was kind enough to write a few verses when I reached my fortieth birthday. I suppose it’s about the only time that will happen!. We were together for three years and I’m glad to say that he came home unscathed and I had the pleasure of his company many times in later years. In a turbulent four years I consider his company to have been pure gain.

Back to the story! The Valentines that we had were too slow and undergunned, I was by this time a Driver Mechanic receiving the princely sum of sixpence a day extra. I remember once on my first outing with a new crew, the oil pressure failed and I was forced to pull up. Eventually the fitters arrived and diagnosed a broken oil pump. Consequently it was much later when it was repaired and the officer hadn’t a clue which way to go ‘That’s easy’ said the fitter, ‘follow the trail of damage’, which we did and later we rejoined the rest in a field and prepared for the night. At this time another troop was formed and I found myself in it and so bade goodbye to the haughty officer. My new officer a Lt Webb, a schoolmaster in civilian life. A tall man who carried his head slightly to one side. A sombre and serious man, seemingly devoid of humour, who worked hard himself and expected everybody else to do the same.

I remember doing guard duty one night when Mr Webb was the Orderly Officer, things were quiet after the last of the passes had returned from the nearby town and I could see Mr Webb coming up and I had the chance to warn the Orderly Sergeant before challenging ‘Halt who goes there.’ He replied ‘Orderly Officer’ and I said ‘Pass Orderly Officer’. He came up to me and asked ‘Why did you not say ‘Advance to be recognized?’ I replied ‘because I recognized you twenty yards away sir’ to which he said ‘Oh I see, but you should always go by the drill book.’ He was a man for crossing the t’s and dotting the i’s but I found him a very good officer, very fair with great concern for his men. May his soul rest in peace for he was killed early on in the campaign in France. Shortly after his death a parcel arrived addressed to him and his crew. When opened there were five medallions and picture of St. Christopher, plus a letter from Mrs Webb saying she was sending them on after having them blessed by some Archbishop. They arrived too late for him, poor soul.

By this time we had new tanks, Crusaders, which were much faster than the Valentines, but had the same popgun. Then came Centaurs with their six pounders but eventually the American Sherman came with a 75mm gun and weighed just under 35 tons. The engine was of course my prime interest with its Chrysler engine of 450 h.p. and a petrol consumption of two gallons a mile. It’s main drawback was its height and as we found to our cost, its armour plating was no match for the 88’s and a distinct tendency to go on fire when hit. They were not called ‘Tommy Cookers’ for nothing. When the Firefly with its 17 pounder arrived much later on things evened out somewhat.

Things were always changing in the army. We troopers were the only constant, and we were always on the move. From Whitby we went to Crowborough, Sussex then to Castle Martin in Pembroke then to Thetford in Norfolk and on to Bridlington, a short time at Kirkcudbright then to Milford near Southampton and from there to Normandy. When in Crowborough we had a ‘leave’. It happened that my wife and daughter had gone to stay with my mother at Llanuwchllyn near Bala, North Wales, so I asked for my railway warrant to be made out there. I was working on the tank one morning when the Major came up to me and asked what connection I had with Llanuwchllyn. I explained that my mother lived there and I had a brother who was farming in the area ‘Where’ he asked and I replied ‘Pantgwyn’, ‘I know the place well’ he said and had been shooting there with his ‘kinsman’ Sir Watkin Williams-Wynne. He chatted about the area for about half an hour. When he left I continued with my work. Before I had really settled down the all too familiar voice of the Sergeant Major cut in ‘What did the Major want’? I explained, to which he replied ‘He was with you long enough’ and off he went. The Sergeant came, ‘Taff what did the Major….?’ and so on. I had to abandon work on the tank that day. For one who normally kept his head down, a visit from the ‘Boss’ stood out like a sore thumb!

We did various exercises and schemes. We had visits from officers who had returned from the Middle East and Italy who lectured us on what the enemy had in store for us. One stands out in my memory – a Captain Baum who was an expert on guns and firing, he had a slight speech defect. He fired a question at a trooper who also stuttered. When the unfortunate man tried to reply, the Captain, rather red in the face thundered ‘What is your name’ H-H-h-Hawkins’ came the reply ‘H-h-Hawkins are you m-m-mocking? ‘N-N-No Sir said the poor chap ‘I s-s-stutter’. ‘Oh I see’ said the Captain ‘come and see me after the lecture and I’ll give you the name of my doctor, he cured me.’

Looking back, the instructors laid far too much stress on camouflage and urged us to use camouflage netting and hide under trees to hide ourselves from enemy aircraft. So doing we would gain an advantage on attacking forces. The idea was all right but when we got to France we hardly saw the Luftwaffe and we did most of the attacking. The habit of hiding under trees cost us dearly, especially in tank commanders who were about fifteen feet up and very vulnerable to air bursts and mortar fire.

I have mentioned my ‘wooden soldier’ trait. When in Thetford our division had a marching competition and much to my despair our troop won and I was in a real panic when we were chosen to represent the 24th Lancers in the final test. But there was nothing for it but to go, and after being smartened up, away we went. Two Guards Drill Sergeants put us through our paces, and then we were lined up in ‘open order’. Two members of each troop were to be called before the Major General to be questioned. In our platoon the first to be called was Griffiths A. and away Alun went. When he came back- Jones R.! Oh well!! One pace back, left turn and the little wooden soldier went to meet the only general he ever met face-to-face. I halted, gave the man a heck of a salute and in a clear voice said ‘7941218 Jones Rhys. Trooper’ then ‘You come from Wales, Jones?’ ‘Yes Sir.’ ‘Where do you live?’ ‘Porthcawl, Sir.’ ‘I come from Brecon’ he replied. For a second I was speechless then out came ‘Oh Cymru am Byth Sir’. He was obviously pleased and gave me a warm smile. ‘You may return now.’ ‘Yes Sir, Thank you Sir.’ another salute, two steps back, right about turn, and back to the obscurity of the centre rank.

No we didn’t win but the Sergeant Major said to me of my solo run ‘By God Jones, I thought you were going to fall over when you did the right about turn, after speaking to the General.’ Enough said!!

The tempo rose as the months passed. Old faces vanished and some hard weeding among the officers. We had already been within a whisker of going to North Africa, where the First Army was in some trouble. We had our embarkation leave and I arranged with my wife that If I finished my letter with ‘Yours truly’ she would know not to expect a letter from me for some time.

We started very early one morning and drove through the dark to Newmarket, loaded the tanks, then the long slow journey to a port near Helensburgh beyond Glasgow. The tanks were loaded on to the ship and then most of us boarded the train to join the troopship.

When we reached Glasgow we had a message that plans had been changed, so back we went to unload the ship and back to Newmarket where we were given leave to make up for our disappointment!! About this time we were taken out of the 11th Armoured Div. (flash, black bull on a yellow backing) and joined the 3rd Armoured Brigade (flash, fox’s mask). There were three regiments 3-7 Dragoon Guards, The Sherwood Rangers and ourselves. The first two had swimming tanks, we had tanks which could wade up to about ten feet of water.

We were sent to Milford on Sea to a small Manor house with the Isle of Wight across the Solent. By this time Mr Fuller was our troop officer, a lovely man and a real gent. Anyway it was my habit to write in English to my wife but in Welsh to my mother. Lt Fuller came to me one day and told me he was sorry but if I continued to write in Welsh my letters would be delayed as there was no one in the regiment who could understand what I had written. ‘Oh’ I said ‘there’s no hurry’. Then the Squadron Leader came in and in a very civil tone explained about any delay. ‘That’s all right Sir’ I replied. In my letter I had told my mother to give my regards to the Rev. Dr I.D.Jones. When my mother finally got the letter she was baffled but my uncle spotted it at once and said ‘He’s in Bournemouth.’ The Reverend had for many years been a minister at Bournemouth, but had retired and moved to near Bala.

We went from Milford to a holding camp at Winchester where we were fed by the Americans but had the chance to explore one of England’s oldest cities.

After one false start we went to Southampton and embarked in a whale of a ship called the ‘John I Jones’ an American owned and manned ship. Ours was the last tank to board. The food was American and strange to my tastes, things like peaches and meat, a spoonful of potatoes and a little bread. Gallons of coffee. They were very kind to us for the four days we were on board.

One day the heavy guns of the Navy were enough to deafen anyone and the air was filled with aircraft in their thousands going back and forth. By about two o’clock the ship had gone as near the shore as she could and we waited while a large raft came alongside and started loading. The lorries first of all and then the tanks. We drove slowly on to the barge in case it capsized. The raft was so long the helmsman had great difficulty in keeping it heading for the shore, but land was slowly getting nearer. The co-driver and I were sealed in and eventually the order came ‘Start up, Taff’ and into the water we went and slowly drove on to dry land. I believe that our tank was the first of our regiment to land. We landed at 6.30 on June 6th. Our D-Day had arrived!

Men of No. 47 Commando landing on Gold near La Rivière
(Sgt Midgley, No 5 Army Film & Photographic Unit)

What was the reaction? Fear certainly with the heart pounding away. The bodies floating in the sea were proof that this was no child’s play, but you had to hide your fears and listen carefully to the tank commander’s directions as we were still under seal and could see very little ourselves. The vision through the periscope was minimal and we had to rely on someone who could see what was going on. I saw a row of men coming to meet us with their hands on their heads – those were the first P.O.W.’s for me to see. We went out of the village into a large field to wait for the regiment to assemble. In the next field a cow lay feet up to show that everything was endangered here.

The morning came and we saw some planes flying in from the sea. Suddenly someone started firing at them from between us and the sea. Some of the enemy were still around and we must have bypassed them the previous evening. Shortly afterwards three of our tanks went by with infantry aboard and later we heard the noise of the 75’s and chatter of Brownings, and the noise of the enemy’s mortars in reply. Shortly afterwards the tanks came by again with the troops giving the thumbs up. The 24th Lancers were in business!! That is what happened for the first couple of days, mopping up and disposing of snipers who were causing much damage and casualties to the soft skinned vehicles. These snipers were very prone to hide in church towers and it became the habit to plaster any church tower as you approached.

We were used to seeing corpses both German and ours. Mr Fuller once complained to me that the Germans always fell face down, while ours fell face up! The regiment moved on, about 60 Shermans and some smaller Honeys. On the road I saw a young girl on her knees praying and making a sign of the cross. I would like to say that this first action of ours was a success, but it turned out to be a bit of a fiasco. At first we were fired at from some trees, to which we replied vigorously, then things quietened down. About a mile ahead there was a river bridge, one of the Honeys started to cross but was hit by an A.P. and stopped, blocking the bridge. I saw our troop sergeant walk past, I couldn’t understand and I heard from my tank commander that the sergeant’s tank had been hit. I asked what had happened to the rest of the crew and heard that Mr Fuller’s crew were helping. Later we heard the story. The sergeant’s tank was hit, killing Hearn the co-driver, the driver was badly burnt and died later. The gunner was blinded and the wireless operator was in shock – he was only twenty years old.

The three were put on Mr Fuller’s tank leaving the body behind. Perhaps I am biased but I had scant regard for professional soldiers, think of it, the regiment’s senior sergeant abandoning his crew to their fate and walking away, not in a blind panic, that I could have understood and forgiven. The sergeant lost his stripes and transferred to the A.D.C. I saw him once later in Leopoldsville in Belgium and he told me he hoped to get his stripes back before long.

That was the start of heavy losses, and fierce fighting. I remember being told to rest early one afternoon because we were due to take part in a night action. Now I have always hated driving in the dark, my night vision is not good. I couldn’t settle down, thinking of the seven tanks that were left out of eighteen. I walked back and fore and was rather downhearted, Mr Fuller came up and asked if I had heard the order to rest. I replied that I intended to do so immediately. He replied that there was no hurry and asked what I thought of things. I told him I felt downhearted and that the best thing would be to get a ‘cushy’ wound. He tried to cheer me up by saying our old friends, the 11th Armoured would arrive soon as they had been held up by bad weather. I had a very high regard for Mr Fuller who had been very kind to me all along and had got me leave when my daughter became ill when we were at Thetford. Anyway night eventually arrived and we had to move forward and in time there came the dawn. After a bit of a skirmish we were told to go to a hedge to watch a copse of trees where Germans were hiding. I turned the tank so that it faced the hedge, for two reasons. It reduced the target to any lurking 88 and it gave my co-driver and myself the chance to see what was going on! Len Guest was the W/O, he loved to play chess and he had a board with pegs so that we could move the board back and forth without upsetting the pieces. I found this a great help, it helped to reduce tension, even though I was soundly beaten more often than not.

There were fluctuations between two extremes at this period. One was either bored stiff or scared stiff!. We were sitting by that hedge all of three hours without a sight of the enemy and after a peek through the periscope I started writing a letter. ‘Dear family, I hope this letter finds you as it leaves me – in good health.’ There was a huge explosion and my tank commander yelled ‘Start reversing for God’s sake’ We went back through the hedge and I could see the officer’s tank like a firework display. Fortunately the crew escaped with burns and shock and the officer was wounded in the ‘ham’. He was wounded again outside Brussels and killed near Hamburg about an year later. One of the best.

‘The weather is getting much better..’ the letter continued! The following day was a bad day for the squadron. In the morning Major Bennet, the Squadron Leader was wounded, early afternoon Captain Jock Kerr was killed – a lovely Scot. Sir Robert Arbuthnot came to take charge of us and was killed less than half an hour later. Only two officers remained, ‘Pip’ Williams and Cummings and they were not friends.

Sherman VC Firefly of 24th Lancers near Saint-Léger, 11 June 1944
(Imperial War Museum)

A call came over the radio, ‘Baker Williams to Sunray over’. Pip Williams answered. Silence. Then ‘Baker Williams to Sunray over’ with emphasis on the Sunray. Then came the reply. I am Sunray’ from Pip.

A few days later came the complaint that someone was firing at us from the rear and the 11th Armoured presented themselves. Shortly afterwards we were withdrawn and that was the end of the road for the 24th Lancers. Many of our officers came from the 17th-21st Lancers whose motto ‘Death or Glory’ is well known. I am afraid that we had more of the first than the last. In fact our casualty list read more like an electoral register than anything else, so much so that it was decided to post the remnants to other regiments, and the question was what was our fate to be. Lt. Pip Williams asked me to leave the crew and go as his driver, but I asked to be excused as the rest of the crew and myself had been together from the start, apart from the tank commander, we knew each others ways and trusted each other. The news came that we were to go to the 44th R.T.R. I heard that Alun (Griffiths) was to go to the Fife and Forfar Yeomanry. A truck came to pick us up and away we went to face the future. The memories of times past remained. One of those memories was of my sister Margaret, a hospital matron, who on occasion used to send a parcel containing a Canadian Red Cross packet of ‘Compo’ cocoa, a mix of cocoa, dried milk, and sugar which when mixed with hot water produced a delicious drink. and my stock was high in the troop while the cocoa lasted!!

One day in Normandy a very similar parcel arrived, although I could see that it was not my sister’s writing, the lads gathered round in expectation as it was opened and it was more in anguish than anger that the cry of “bloody nuts” went up. My uncle Tommy, an invalid had been laboriously collecting the nuts from hedgerows near his home to send to me!

We went to the outskirts of Caen, and after a word of welcome from the colonel then on to the echelon. They were still Shermans but this time with Whirlwind engines, much less powerful than the Chrysler engine I was used to, but I soon got the hang of it. The regiment came from Bristol originally and had fought in the Middle East, Italy and now France. They were not as regimental as the Lancers which was a relief to me personally.

After receiving losses in the battle for Caen we went back to the Bocage which was not tank terrain as it suited the 88’s to a ‘T’. We were pressing the enemy hard and with the Americans approaching from the other side, we pressed hard to cut the enemy off at Falaise. It was hell on earth, my new tank commander was a Sergeant and as the gun was a 17 pounder I had no co-driver as his place was filled with ammo-racks.

We had been there some time when there was a huge explosion. I looked back and saw Len Guest lying on the floor of the turret with his eyes open. The gunner was shouting ‘Help me Taff’. Out I got and into the turret. The commander was seriously injured. I got hold of him and told Charlie Price the gunner to tell the Squadron Leader what had happened. We were told to withdraw to our previous position and slowly that is what we did. By the H.Q. a house had been taken over as a first aid post. We got the commander out alive but poor Len had to be lifted through the hatch. The place was like an abattoir and we had to clean the place up before the blood dried – anything to keep us going. Afterwards we went to see how the tank commander was getting on. He had received a blood transfusion and things were looking brighter for him. They had buried Len with about 15 others. We received a new tank Commander and wireless operator and back we went to the fray.

That night on the radio came the news that the Government had raised the allowance on orphaned children from ten shillings to eleven shillings and sixpence. Oh well!!

The cream (prisoners of war) were increasing as was the tempo. ‘Press on regardless’ was heard with increasing frequency on the radio. The rumour was that there were Tigers ahead. The Fireflies with their 17 pounders led the way. We got to a village and by the first house a one armed man in some uniform – railway or post office – gave us a lovely salute, grinning from ear to ear. About fifty yards away round a bend an old lady with one finger in her mouth and pointing up at the roof which was on fire. ‘Half a mo, Taff’ said the commander and tried to douse the flames with an extinguisher. In less than half a minute the radio began to utter imprecations and we had to proceed. We came to a school which had been turned into a First Aid Post by the Germans and two of them with Red Crosses on their arms stood there. In the end we were met by a squadron of Churchills coming the other way. The eggshell had broken. It had been some day.

What amazed me was the way the Germans relied on horse transport. There were hundreds of them alive and dead, usually in pairs, one dead or injured and the other standing patiently by its side. ‘Drive on’ was the cry and sometimes there was no way to avoid it but we had to drive over dead or dying animals. Suddenly the Germans gave in and then came the ‘cream’ thousands of them. I saw one line, three deep as far as I could see with lorries, cars and tanks including some Shermans nose to tail for miles. The peace and quiet after the continuous firing was a godsend. Not so the nights. The usual way for a tank crew to sleep was to tie the tarpaulin to the tank track, lay out the bed and then fold the tarpaulin back over the bed to cover and tie it to the top track. The trouble was as the night wore on the heat from the sleeping crew reached the mangled remains of horses etc on the tracks so that an awful putrid smell filled the ‘tent’. One of our crew boasted that he could tell from the aroma what we had crushed during the day, cow horse or German !!

We had a few days to do a bit of maintenance on the tank, the gunner changed the barrels of the machine guns and cleaned the main gun while I looked after the Whirlwind – an old aero engine by all accounts. It drove the tank quite well on hard ground but on soft ground it was like a snail, particularly when going through hedges when we were in a hurry normally. After a short break we were to start on an amazing journey, a tragi-comedy of a journey across France, Belgium and Holland. To explain about myself, I tried hard to remain impersonal about the enemy. To me, he was just an ordinary chap, like me, called to serve his country. This was not how the French, Belgians and Dutch looked at them, and their treatment of prisoners of war was vicious at times. However away we went, when we entered a village, church bells were ringing like mad. An occasional banner with ‘Welkum’ on it across the street. Then away out of the village, the noise of firing, a battery of 88’s, one or two tanks going up in flames, the rest firing at the battery until it was silenced, then on again.

Occasionally a small group of Germans waited by the side of the road to give themselves up. Once we were in the third tank and I saw a group of about a dozen waiting to surrender, their arms piled up nearby. The leading tank stopped, suddenly a Frenchman grabbed a rifle and shot one of the Germans, then danced around his body in high glee. The remaining Germans ran for cover behind the tank. The radio started demanding an explanation for the hold up, and the officer explained what had happened. ‘Push on’ was the order, but the young lieutenant refused quoting the Hague Convention and the rights of P.O.W’s to safety – the first time I had heard of it. Shortly the infantry arrived and away we went. We travelled 63 miles that day and I had to pour in 120 gallons of petrol to slake the tank’s thirst.

Around this time we reached a sizeable town, Chartres I believe, or a similar name. I was in the leading tank when we reached the huge square of the old town and the welcome was ecstatic. A procession was formed and paraded around for a while before forming a circle and in the centre a group of young women were put on a bench and had their heads shaved. Some of the girls wept, while others seemed unconcerned. Their crime was to have been too friendly towards the Germans. Orders came through to continue and with the usual scout car ahead, away we went. We had only gone about a quarter of a mile before we met a German scout car coming at break neck speed. We saw one another at the same moment. The Germans did a hair raising turn and two men jumped out and legged it down a lane.

It happened so quickly that no one had time to react and away we went until we reached the Belgian border. The whole journey has left my memory a little vague but I remember entering an industrial city (Liege??) where we were welcomed with clenched fists. Not in a threatening manner – they were Commies. We had one particularly eventful night. To the right of us were the Welsh Guards being welcomed into Brussels. To the left were the Canadians attempting the same thing at Antwerp. Ahead of us was the real German Army. These were attempting to get back to Germany but to get there they had to get past us. They were very determined and the battle lasted most of the night with very hard fighting, Whatever could be said of us as attackers, we were very doughty defenders. About four in the morning the Germans withdrew, but they were a pain in the Canadians’ side for a long time. We had to slow down, our lines of communication stretched back to Normandy, by now many miles in the rear.

Our food arrived in packages lettered A to G. The last was the most popular because it contained canned fruit!. The most difficult thing to get right was the compo tea. The usual drill was to dig a hole, pour in some petrol put on a ‘dixie’ full of water with a match floating on top to take away the taste of smoke. Stand back and throw a lighted match into the hole. Wait for the water to heat up, but not boil, and then add the compo. If the water was not hot enough the tea would come to the surface, if too hot the milk would rise in lumps to the top and then you’d get the ‘sack’ until your turn came round again!. When it was too ‘hot’ outside the tea would be made on the turret floor on the little primus. This needed continual pumping and the water took a long time to get hot enough. Often when almost ready the order would come to move, so the labour was wasted. This job was done by the W/O. Talking of Wireless Operators around this time our W/O was wounded, not badly fortunately and we had a Lance Corporal Baldwin in his place. I did not know him but had seen him around H.Q.. When we started the next attack I heard an odd noise coming from the turret, I turned round and could see the L/C in tears. He cried and sobbed for two days before we could get rid of him. Our term for this was ‘slap-happy’. My most difficult period was during the last few weeks of the war when I found it difficult to leave the safety of the tank. This I had to do, to answer the call of nature and my normal duties around the tank. But by talking sternly to myself I could force my body to move.

I saw only two, outwardly at least, who were completely unafraid. One was the Major of the Squadron, the other the Sergeant Fitter from Bristol. I remember seeing him, when a shower of H.E. exploded over our heads, lighting his pipe as casually as if waiting for a hailstorm to pass while sheltering under the lee of the tank. I understood he was a window cleaner in civvy life. Certainly I was not of the same mould and I did not intend leaving my wife and daughter to enjoy the largesse of the government if I could help it.

After a spell of peace and quiet we were on the move to Holland. We followed the Guards Armoured Div and Eindhoven was the first place we got to. The welcome was the same as usual and we were held up. I put my head out of the hatch and noticed an old chap trying to attract my attention, he stretched up and gave me a wooden clog. I have it still. The order came for us to move and when I had the chance to look I saw he had put his name – A.C. Jongol – in indelible pencil and his address, but the address was not clear. I wondered what his intentions were. This was an odd campaign, the roads were narrow for scores of miles and the terrain on either side was enemy held and they were causing chaos. I missed some of it. I had slipped and hurt my knee which had swollen badly and I was unable to depress the clutch. After two days the rest of the crew turned up after coming second best to a Tiger. We had a four day break and then a new tank. By this time it was obvious that this nut was too tough to crack. The Guards got to within a couple of miles of Arnhem but no further.

About this time I was transferred (no fee paid!!) to be the Squadron Leader’s driver. My predecessor had erred badly by leaving his tank at every available opportunity to loot any nearby house. ‘Liberate’ was the word used and although his mate had been killed by a booby trap he was undeterred. This was the ugly side of war – the ruthless pillaging of ordinary people’s homes looking for anything sellable by those who had come to liberate them. These lads were great in every other respect, but property brought out the animal in them.

Our next job was to clear the left hand side of the road and take the town of Tilbert. I remember the odd signs that met us there “Goodbye Hello”. The news came that the Germans had attacked the Americans and were threatening Eindhoven. I noticed that the infantry were the South Wales Borderers. The action was short and fierce and the Germans retreated.

By this time winter was upon us and the weather got much colder. The engine turned a large fan to prevent over-heating the engine. This fan took its air from the turret which cleared the fumes when firing but made the drivers and co-drivers seats a very draughty place indeed. I noticed that my new co-driver Jim Wassal wore only denims over his underclothes, while I had my underwear, khaki battledress and then a tank suit over that. When I asked him why he said ‘Fire,Taff.” According to his reckoning he would have five seconds to bale out to avoid been burned to ashes when we were hit. He looked at me with pity and said ‘You’ll never make it.’ Make it or not as the weather got colder I added a pullover and Balaclava while Jim shivered by my side all gooseflesh. We found ourselves back over the Dutch-Belgian border and the H.Q. was established in the Customs Officer’s house.

One night the news came that a German patrol had landed on our side of the river. I was told to inform the troop that were mounting guard that night and away I went. I reached the house and up the stairs. Seeing a light in one of the rooms I entered. There lying in bed were a man and wife both elderly, looking with staring eyes under their night caps at the apparition who had burst in. I smiled and apologised in English, closed the door, up another flight before I found the H.Q. I could well have spoken to the old couple in Welsh for all they could understand – they were Walloons.

I had a home leave at this time and it was good to be home but the time passed too quickly and back I came to find myself in another part of Holland The first night I was billeted with a farmer and his family. That evening they started singing something similar to a national anthem. I asked if it was the Dutch national anthem but they shook their heads and said ‘Limberg’ or something similar, it may have been a province.

The following day we attacked a small town, without much opposition. The only obstacle was that the roads were strewn with mines and two of our tanks lost their tracks. We settled down and established the H.Q. in a cafe. The news came that our Squadron leader had been promoted to second in command of the regiment and that another Major was on his way to take charge of us. When he arrived in a couple of days he turned out to be rather a county type who had been in the War Office for some years. The first thing he asked was ‘Are there any letters to censor?’ Normally we took the letters to the troop officer who usually asked ‘Are these all right?’ and signed them without further ado. Major Deas made a meal of them and I often heard him laughing over the contents of the letters. He had a very fruity voice and it soon became plain that he knew nothing of running a squadron and still less of fighting. Yet he was a very likeable character.

We now moved to the outskirts of a village where we stayed for some weeks. I slept in a farmhouse – in the attic. The house, the cowshed and pigsty were all under one roof. The smell of ammonia at night was overpowering!! The family of nine were staunch Catholics who lived mainly on potatoes. Their wan faces were proof of that. We had a corporal who was a menace to everything in skirts between ten and seventy years old. One day the wife caught our corporal molesting one of their daughters who was about twelve. She gave him two or three hefty clouts. Everything OK? Not likely, she had transgressed by losing her temper and the whole family had to join in supplication for the errant woman, while she sat wailing in the corner. In my view the wife should have given the so and so another couple from the other side. On Christmas morning the whole family went to church before 5am. I asked if the church had been heated. “Nein” was the reply.- and I thought our family were religious!!.

One other thing happened that day. The Major came round to wish us well, and when he came to me said ‘Heah is my drivah – a good chap but I do wish he wouldn’t write Welsh letters, I cannot understand them’. The poor soul. One more thing about this place. I was on guard from 4 to 6 in the morning and as I went past a farm entrance I heard a noise like someone crying. I looked around but I couldn’t see anyone and carried on with my patrol. I wasn’t too happy about it so turned back and went into the extensive farm yard to find a woman splashing about in the well in the centre of the courtyard. I ran to the door and found the farmer talking to one of our sergeants. We got a blanket and eventually lifted what appeared to be an old lady who looked very ill. She was carried to the house. That morning at breakfast I mentioned this to our landlady to see if she knew what had happened. My description of an ‘old frau’ hardly fitted with the “plonk wasser” she mentioned. That evening she told me “Nein nein old frau” and that the woman concerned had had a child a fortnight earlier!

It was at this time and in the most unlikely place I suffered most from battle fatigue, I had gone on a short leave to Brussels and the place was buzzing with Americans. The news broke that the Germans had attacked the Americans on the Ardennes, and had broken through and were making for Brussels. The locals were in panic because the Germans had plastered ‘We shall be back’ on walls everywhere and this had worried them greatly. The Americans had vanished from the streets and we were quite glad to get back to the unit. This was when we saw refugees with their carts and bundles looking for sanctuary. When I got back to the tank I was glad to get inside the steel plating.

Towards the end of February came our next push. This was the one action that stood out in my memory and the main reason for that was our Major. He was a character compared to his predecessor who apart from commands like “Driver start up” “Driver right” and so on never spoke to his crew. Not so Major Deas. He had an interest in us all – too much if anything. He drank more whisky than he should, but he was a warm individual. who appealed to me.

In the exercises before the attack it was patently obvious that he hadn’t a clue about battle tactics. One thing that concerned his crew and troop was that he insisted on leading the squadron from the front, and instead of the troop leader being at the base of the ‘V’ the ‘V’ was inverted. On these exercises he got to the target ten minutes before anyone else “Like a fairy on a Christmas tree” as our Corporal remarked.

He fouled up when we got to the marshalling area where the movement of units was carefully laid down. We watched as hundreds of tanks and vehicles passed, then came a gap and the command came from the Major “Start up” and away we went, only to find out about a quarter of an hour later that we had moved too soon and had split another regiment in half, and we were split from the rest of the 44th. We shortly found a place to pull in, and things were straightened out but the stock of our Major was very low.

The battle came, which was fierce. We were in reserve and Captain Watkins was sent forward to take charge of another squadron. The Major had the idea that he would like to see the action at closer quarters and received permission to go forward. The place was in turmoil with shells, mortars and machine guns going off. Our Major was shouting “Hoo Hoo” at Captain Watkins who hastily waved his arm. From the middle of this maelstrom a young German soldier appeared leading an old man and woman to safety. Suddenly the old girl stopped and lifted her skirts and attended to the call of nature. The lad stood by quietly while it happened!!

It was time for us to take the stage again and moved behind Captain Watkins (who lost his life in this action) and away we went to take a crossroads. One troop to the left another to the right and us on the road. I tried to go as slowly as I could to enable the others to keep up, but the orders from the Major was ‘speed up’. The co-driver and I looked for troops on the wings but no sign! We soon arrived at the crossroads without a shell or mortar to hinder us and to our surprise the Major announced this over the radio to HQ. The Major left the tank to talk to the attendant infantry when the first burst of H.E. came over. The co-driver and I had opened the hatches to see if the infantry had arrived and I received a small nick on the back of my neck from the shrapnel. We closed down again smartly!. The corporal was very uneasy and told me to start up. I asked where the Major had got to, and he didn’t know. My co-driver and I looked at each other, we knew the corporal was sweating on his leave, which was due. Orders being orders so I started up. A few seconds later the order came to switch off because the Major was under the tank with half a platoon of infantry sheltering from the barrage. In a few minutes the Major returned and I heard the corporal asking “Sir may I talk to you, man to man? “Certainly corporal” came the reply. “You’ve got this tank in a bloody stupid position, Sir” After a pause the Major asked “Drivah, and what do you say?”

Now I am naturally loyal to those in charge and I knew that Frank Murain the corporal was almost hysterical at the thought of losing his leave. We had got where we were without incident so I replied ‘We (the co-driver and I) are quite comfortable thank you sir.’ ‘Thank you drivah” and then silence. Soon afterwards the major’s legs became very swollen and that was the end of his career as a soldier.

Many months later the Major was Town Major near Hamburg. One night I had gone to bed at a nearby castle when the R.S.M. himself came to wake me up and told me to dress and go to another castle about five miles away, which was the HQ. I was puzzled but obeyed. On the way I was told there was a sergeants’ mess party with Major Deas as a guest and he had expressed a wish to see his old driver. I received a huge welcome from him and his description of me made me blush! He put his hand on my shoulder and said I was to bring my wife and meet Mrs Deas for a ‘quiet little drink’. The old Sunday School Superintendent almost choked on the spot!!

Back to the war. We moved about fifty yards to the right of the main road as another regiment was taking over the attack. I saw them coming down the slope and within seconds three or four tanks had been destroyed. The rest went on out of my sight. The noise of firing was incredible and eventually they came back – what was left of them – in a rare panic, throwing smoke bombs behind them until it was impossible to see anything. The panic spread and I could see some of our tanks pulling back. The Major told us to move, but only a short distance. Then the voice of the second in command came on the radio icily demanding to know what was happening. That was enough for the Major to send out rockets while we slipped quietly back to our position. The regiment that took the beating was City of London Yeomanry, Gentlemen of London. They lost dead or wounded all their principle officers and many junior officers, a dark day for them. The Germans were overcome in a day or two.

We pulled out to central Belgium to practice with swimming tanks. To those of us ex 24th Lancers, these were not new. An apron of giant inner tubes were placed around the tank which were inflated from a compressed air tank a propeller was added and that basically was that. We went down to the river blew up the tubes, put the thing in gear drove in until the propeller took over. The driver and co-driver were about six feet under water and were guided by the tank commander who was above water level. Look for a reasonable landing spot, hope the river was not flowing too quickly a light throttle. The fact that only one tank failed to cross was proof the system worked. Of the fighting from here on, little stands out in my memory. The enemy consisted of 15 year old boys and Home Guard types to fill in. The main worry were the anti-aircraft gun turned anti-tank guns. We had to treat them very carefully. By attacking from three sides at once we could subdue them without paying too high a price. No one wanted to be the last to die if that could be avoided but accidents happened. A lad from Lancing, Sussex who had just married that Easter was killed when getting out of the tank. He got hold of the machine gun barrel to help lever himself out. He must have given a jerk because it fired and he was killed. He was the last casualty of the 44th although it was some days before the Germans laid down their arms. There was general jubilation with shots fired in the air, to the alarm of local residents who thought the Russians had arrived! The morning arrived and with it – a block of blanco!. The close relationships between officers and men was beginning to unravel and spit and polish was re-established as the order of the day, and in a flash we were back to the barrack square.

Non-fraternisation was the rule with the threat of the glass house for those caught. We had a new Major and one evening he and another new officer saw one of our lads walking arm in arm with one of the local girls. They shouted at him and they took off in opposite directions and the Major and Lieutenant started chasing the trooper. Suddenly the trooper fired his revolver at his pursuers, who abandoned the chase. In an hour or so the place was swarming with Red Caps. This led to nothing and the trooper from H.Q. troop was heard to lament that he hadn’t had a Sten gun to do a better job!!

What of the Germans? their reaction was mixed, thousands of refugees swarmed round the place only too ready to take their revenge on their old masters. Some had heard of the treatment meted out by the Russians and were thankful they were on our side of the fence. They were also very bitter. The 44th were one of the Desert Rats and carried the flash on our arm. In a few hours most shops in the town carried displays extolling the virtues of rat poison!

The main question at the time was what age and service group you were. I was group 20 and although six months elapsed before I finally got out, I was very lucky. We were in a castle (schloss) near Lubeck on the Baltic and our job was to supervise the demob of thousands of German Army personnel to make sure that no unauthorised people went through. Working with us were a number of German army people and they appeared to be a good bunch of lads.

Quite a number of Poles worked in the kitchens and one day the Sergeant Major came and said he was arranging a chess match between me and the Polish champion, because so far I was unbeaten in the squadron. Well you learn by losing and I said I’d be delighted to play him. The night before the contest the Pole went berserk chasing after the cook with a carving knife. He was taken to hospital and that was that.

I had a short leave in Amsterdam and we stayed in a school which advertised that they were ready to send a parcel of tulips to our home address for a fixed amount of guilders. I sent one to my mother and the other to our home address at Porthcawl but I didn’t see much of a display in either place! Amsterdam though was well worth seeing.

November came and Group 20. I bade farewell to the 44th and turned back to Wales. It took me four days to get to Oxford and then to Hereford where we were issued with our demob suits and arrived home the following day.

The fetters had been cast aside after four and a half years of a strange life, a mixture of joy and sorrow and indeed highly comical at times. I was honoured to have had the fellowship and friendship of many good men.

I slipped back into civvy life without any trouble and resumed my old job like a fish in water. I have somewhere two medals – there should have been three – and a piece of paper saying ‘Employed as a tank driver- reliable and safe, conscientious and hard working under any conditions.’

And into the mist went 7941218 Tpr Jones R.

Rhys Jones, c.1966

Trying not to Work

Oops. Missed out 6 down, right next to 5 across/down. Oh, and four downs in the penultimate row.

Back in 1976, we were quite a grown-up lot at 209 Daventry Road – five second year students, three boys and two girls studying at Warwick – more Terry and June than Rik Mayall’s The Young Ones. We had proper Sunday lunches with some Liebfraumilch. We generally did more working than drinking, but sometimes went to the pub across the road, and once we got over our shock at not having to queue at the bar for fifteen minutes like on campus, some of us developed a taste for M&B mild. Our default man-lunch was cheese and pickle sandwiches on white. There were two cars between five of us, which meant that we non-drivers could normally cadge a lift to or from campus for lectures or to work in the library, if we were flexible about when we travelled.

One of the girls bought the Daily Mail each day, and our lunchtime routine was to tackle the crossword on the back, next to Peanuts. It was a gentle introduction to cryptic crosswords, and applying our combined undergraduate brain power we could usually finish it. It was an agreeable enough activity.

But ultimately pointless, of course, and one day as I was struggling to solve an anagram, my mind went off on a tangent. Rather than simply juggling the letters on paper, was there a systematic way to solve anagrams? I soon realised that there was.

If you took every word in the dictionary and arranged its letters alphabetically, and then arranged the transpositions in alphabetical order, attached to their words, and grouped by word length, you would have a book which could unscramble any anagram of a word in that dictionary.

Perhaps most people would have left it there as an idle thought, or assumed that such a book already existed. But I like to try things. I checked the crosswords section in a few bookshops to see whether there was such a book, and found nothing. Perhaps I could be the one to write it? So I noted down the publishers represented there. There were several books available which styled themselves as crossword dictionaries, where words were grouped alphabetically by word length, so a solver could, say, find all the seven-letter words beginning with ‘p’ grouped together.

Pan Books published The Modern Crossword Dictionary which was our regular companion as we did battle with the Daily Mail crossword. Probably the best selling crossword aid at the time – which had the advantage of the best word list, and of Chambers Twentieth Century Dictionary being the standard reference for serious crossword solvers – was Chambers Words, published just two years earlier in 1976, with the extra attraction of an introduction by Frank Muir. There was also a rather creaky looking volume published by Barrie & Jenkins called The Crossword Companion sporting a jacket looking like it hadn’t been updated since the first edition in 1952.

If I thought that looked old fashioned, there was also a splendid volume called The Quickway Crossword Dictionary, published by Frederick Warne & Co, (best known for Beatrix Potter and the “Observer Book of..” series) and Compiled by Colonel H. W. Hill C.M.G., D.S.O. (if you please), and Revised by his son.

I reasoned that it made sense to concentrate on publishers who already had a crossword dictionary in print – firstly because they already sold books to crossword solvers, and secondly because that would provide me with a ready made word list: otherwise I would have to compile one from scratch – something I was keen to avoid.

So I approached Pan Books, Chambers, Barrie & Jenkins and Frederick Warne with my proposal, enclosing a few sample pages of the six-letter section to illustrate how it would work. I had no computer or typewriter, and my letters were untidily handwritten.

I knew it was a long shot, and was disappointed but not surprised before long to receive rejections from Pan, Frederick Warne and Chambers. The first two were routine rejection slips which showed no evidence the publishers had given the idea serious consideration, but I found the letter from Chambers especially irritating. It said that they had “of course” considered publishing an anagram dictionary, but had come to the conclusion that there was insufficient demand.

But after a few weeks, I was very excited to receive a letter from Nancy at Barrie & Jenkins saying that they might be interested. It seemed at first that she hadn’t fully understood the concept: she wrote that she had consulted a mathematician who had said there were billions of possible combinations for 6 up to 15 letters, and that any book attempting to include them all would be enormous. I had to reassure her that only those combinations corresponding with actual words would be included, so the book would be only twice the length of a list of all the words in the dictionary.

Being twenty-one, I was impatient for rapid progress. I had no idea how many meetings and approvals publishers needed about production, marketing, finance, everything, and every day the postman failed to bring a letter from Barrie & Jenkins provoked a stream of angry muttering. I used the time to work on my word list, and to work out the exact content of the book.

The word list was compiled by editing the list in The Crossword Companion and adding in more words from more comprehensive sources – the finished volume would contain some 50,000 words. The dictionary would include only words from six letters up to fifteen letters – I reasoned that solving anagrams with five or fewer letters was insulting the reader’s intelligence, while a standard crossword grid wouldn’t usually contain words longer than fifteen letters.

But how would I compile the book? It had been pretty laborious, just putting together a small sample to demonstrate the idea to publishers: writing each word on a piece of card, adding its alphabetical transposition, putting them all in order, then writing them all out again. By now I was in the final year of an Economics degree – I would need to do some actual study. This was also the time of punk rock, there were gigs to attend. Compiling this book manually would be a great deal of work, so I made tentative enquiries with the University of Warwick computer department.

They were very supportive of an undergraduate with a project: they confirmed that writing a program to sort the words would be a simple matter, and offered, at a very fair rate, the services of in-house punch card operators to input the words. These operators worked very fast, and would be able to complete the task in a fraction of the time it would have taken me.

Eventually the letter I had been waiting for came through: Barrie & Jenkins wanted to publish the book. I was thrilled. I asked the Warwick computer department to start work, and in April 1978 I received the contract, and visited Barrie & Jenkins office in Highbury to sign it and meet my editor Nancy. She was friendly and humorous, taken by surprise when a mere boy turned up, having assumed from my shaky handwriting and from the dull subject matter, that I must be at least seventy.

She explained that they had decided to publish my book because they saw it as a back-list book – i.e. one that would never trouble the bestseller lists, but would tick away over a number of years selling steadily. She asked about my career plans: accountancy seemed too dull a reply, so I muttered something about pop and rock music journalism. She contemplated my unworldly features and replied that it was a tough business.

The contract provided for an advance of £250 – a princely sum for a student in 1978 – with half to be paid on signature and half on delivery and approval of the manuscript. I blew most of this on a Honda Camino moped (which I could ride without passing a test provided I displayed an L-plate), and have only understood how much this terrified my mother since I had children of my own.

My last term at Warwick was hectic, juggling production of the book, my finals, preparing to begin my ‘proper’ career as an accountant at Deloitte Haskins + Sells, and in my spare time managing the Students’ Union secondhand bookshop. I don’t recall how long it took to produce the manuscript, but there was barely a month between receiving the advance for signature, and the advance for delivery.

The helpful fellows at the computer department, Rod, Mike and Gerry, pointed out that when their program had finished churning out the book, I would have what they called ‘machine readable text’ – i.e. computer tapes could be used to typeset the book directly, bypassing old fashioned mechanical typesetting. This would avoid the need to input the text again, so also make it less likely that mistakes could creep in during production.

This was a revelation. I pointed the opportunity out to Barrie & Jenkins: after what I imagine were frenzied enquiries around the antiquated British printing industry, they came back with a request for the data to be supplied on paper tape. Even in 1978, that was a near-redundant medium, magnetic tape being the standard: the response from Warwick was really? Yes, really.

Not only was I providing the material for the book: I was doing a chunk of the production work for them. Surely that must be worth something? I had no idea how much to invoice, so I plucked a figure out of the air, and asked the publishers for £400, and they paid it. I had paid Warwick just over £200 for their work, but as they had effectively written the book for me – apart from the idea and the word selection – the money I received from production felt like a windfall.

To put this sum into perspective, I started work that year as a trainee accountant at Deloittes on £3,000 per annum, so £400 exceeded one and a half month’s salary. Not amazing, but useful, and three years later it was a decent start towards the deposit on my first flat, in those happy days when a twenty-five year old with an unspectacular salary could get on the property ladder.

On 30 November, The Crossword Anagram Dictionary was published. (After the contract was signed, the publisher had decided to add ‘crossword’ to the title, to make sure it reached its intended audience, and was properly placed in bookshops.).

I received six complimentary copies in the post. It is a wonderful feeling, for a newly published author, to open the package and unwrap the pristine, professionally produced books, to finger the fresh smelling pages, and to to gaze at your own name on the cover. I styled myself R J Edwards rather than Rik because it seemed a little drier, a little more crosswordy. Rik would have to wait until the novel.

On the morning of 13 December 1978 the phone rang at my flat in Kilburn before I had set off to work. It was Dad, telling me to buy a copy of The Guardian – he had opened his copy that morning to read a review of the book, as an editorial piece. It was a scathing review, which likened me to the Rev Casaubon in Middlemarch, but Nancy was delighted with the publicity. “You don’t read reviews”, she said, “you measure them”. On that logic, to make the editorial of a national newspaper was a pretty good result. And I could disregard the irony, and selectively quote “this scholarly monument” (The Guardian) as a review.

Of carthorses and orchestras

I made numerous vanity trips to bookshops to check whether I could spot it in stock: usually I couldn’t. I didn’t ask the staff why not, though I was tempted. But sales were ticking over quietly, and I wasn’t too disappointed by my first royalty statement, in which sales comfortably exceeded my advance. It was surprisingly boosted by a bulk sale to Mayflower Books in New York. I never found out how many Mayflower shifted, although I was sceptical – cryptic crosswords have never been popular in the US, and surely that was the main application for the book? Never mind, it wasn’t my problem – all grist to the mill.

I wasn’t so happy, though, when a couple of years later Chambers – who had “of course” considered publishing an anagram dictionary, but had come to the conclusion that there was insufficient demand – decided to publish Chambers Anagrams, organised exactly the same my book. This was doubly annoying: firstly they certainly pinched my idea – it seemed highly unlikely that they came up with the system for the dictionary independently – and secondly, because they were using words from the Chambers dictionary, their book would be sure have to have a stronger appeal to crossword solvers.

I had no recourse: apparently a text could be copyrighted, but not an idea. So instead I bear a grudge. This all happened forty years ago, but I’m patient. When I get my chance, Chambers are going down.

Anyway…my dream was to get enough books in publication steadily producing royalties so that I no longer needed to do a proper job – and I had an idea for another book. As The Guardian had helpfully pointed out, many crossword solutions are phrases, not words. Only one crossword aid so far had included phrases, Pan Books’ Modern Crossword Dictionary, and they were listed together with all words of the same length.

My idea was to compile a specialist dictionary consisting only of phrases, listed not only by length, but also by configuration. So if, to borrow The Guardian’s example, the elusive solution was “waste of time”, you need only look through the 5,2,4 part of the 11-letter section. And if the book was printed with equal spacing, so that the letters aligned vertically, and you knew, say, that the eighth letter was ‘t’, then you just skim down the eighth column looking for possible solutions.

I pitched the idea to my publishers – Nancy had moved on, and by now Barrie & Jenkins had become Stanley Paul, a Hutchinson imprint – but presumably encouraged by sales of the first book, they went for it. The contract was signed in January 1980, with publication scheduled for later that year. But the recession intervened: I was told that many planned books were dropped, but the Crossword Phrase Dictionary survived the cull to be published the following year.

I had a third and final book idea, and the ideas were becoming steadily less imaginative – or, as Nancy put it, more arcane. Crossword Dictionaries, I argued, were always arranged alphabetically from the start of the word – whereas the nature of crosswords was that you were just as likely to know the last letters of the word as the first. So why not arrange them from the back of the word?

This project started life as the Crossword Backwards Dictionary but was published in 1983 as the Crossword Completion Dictionary. Production didn’t go smoothly: the first proofs I received were in a normal typeface where, for example, a ‘W’ was given more space than an ‘I’. I had to point out that this wouldn’t work: the letters had to be given equal spacing so that the columns would align, so that the user could look down a straight line to find the letter they needed.

This was too technical for Stanley Paul’s typesetters, so I offered to supply camera ready pages – printed in typewriter capitals, albeit by computer – another useful production payday. This gave the pages a slightly home-made look, but at least it did the job.

I celebrated publication with my own review sheet

The horse I was flogging, if not yet dead, was certainly starting to look tired. But all three books continued to produce worthwhile royalties. And in 1983 I had another idea: The Scrabble® Bonus Book, which would enable the user to, um, cheat at Scrabble by showing all the words that could be made with seven or eight letters, which might be used to score a 50-point bonus for playing all one’s tiles in a single turn.

Stanley Paul decided that they’d had enough of a good thing by now, and turned the idea down. So I tried a few other publishers, and Longman, heavyweight publishers of academic books, expressed interest. In the end, they didn’t go ahead because the necessary approval from J.W. Spear & Sons, who licensed Scrabble in the UK, was not forthcoming.

But Longman had their eyes on the dictionary market, and were interested in publishing a companion to their successful Crossword Key. Their idea was to publish a much larger Anagram Dictionary, using their own word list, with a selection of phrases thrown in. Stanley Paul were kind enough not to raise any objection, and the new book was published in 1985 – an impressive volume it was too.

Craig said “sausage” wasn’t in there. But it was, look!

A paperback edition followed three years later. Later an imprint called Tiger Books reprinted the Crossword Anagram Dictionary. But I had run out of ideas. The income from my four books had certainly been useful, especially during the challenging first years of my mortgage, but it had never approached the level I had hoped for, which would enable me to avoid nine to five working and coast along on my royalties. There went my dream of avoiding work.

Happily my day job was now at a level of enjoyment where that didn’t matter – and just as well. In 1995, I received my last meaningful royalty cheques. Soon after, the nascent internet was swarming with anagram solvers, crossword solvers, you name it, and the books soon went out of print: nobody needed a book for this stuff any more.

Fast forward a few years, and like J.R. Hartley, I was curious to know whether my first book was still available. By the 21st century Yellow Pages were as redundant as my own books, so I searched on Amazon Marketplace. I was pleased to find that The Crossword Anagram Dictionary was indeed available: less pleased to learn that my masterpiece was offered at 1p (+ £2.80 postage & packing). My colleague Chris knew a bargain when he saw it, and swooped in to buy it. (Later I got to set up my own Author Page on Amazon.)

And when it arrived I felt a little better about the low price: the volume was very well-thumbed – it had clearly been much used…maybe even loved? What do you think of that, The Guardian?

1996 and 1997: How Merrill Lynch ruined them

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Over the next weeks, our opposition implicitly acknowledged that we were right by slowly adjusting their prices down to our levels – one imagines this was not cheap – and some abandoned the preference market completely. It was a long time before we had any serious competition to worry about. Merrill, in particular would have suffered losses in clearing their positions which would horrify most firms, but which probably registered as a mere blip in their New York City headquarters.

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

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

the end bit

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

The Mug Protocol

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

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

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

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

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

Matthew and Son

Up at eight, you can’t be late

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

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

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

For Matthew and Son,

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

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

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

Matthew and Son, the work’s never done,

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

there’s always something new.

Stimulating work then.

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

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

And they’ve been working all day

All day?

All day

No employer would expect less.

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

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

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

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

No one asks for more money ‘cause nobody dares

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

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

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

Matthew and Son,
Matthew and Son…
etc

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

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

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

Father to the man

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

28,103,832 drips

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

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

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

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

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

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

The tap

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

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

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

Post script July 16, 2021:

O jabjous day! Callooh! Callay!

At the births of our daughters I realised that things can be commonplace and epic at the same time. And sometimes ordinary people feel they are – involuntarily – living a tiny piece of history. I remember on the afternoon of the 7/7 attacks in London in 2005, we were told that we could close our business early and go home, as there was no public transport in central London.

I declined the offer: I was unwilling to concede anything to the terrorists. My tiny act of defiance was to keep working as normal. To get my train home I had to walk from the City to Marylebone Station – about three and a half miles – it seems a long way through London, but we’d think little of it in the countryside. As I battled along the crowded pavements with my fellow commuters, there was – despite the horrific events of the day – an undoubted buzz. Something different, something important had happened, and we were all part of it.

In the same way, Coronavirus has thrust us all into history. When Boris Johnson spoke on 23rd March last year to announce the first lockdown, struggling to project gravitas in place of his customary jocularity, our daughter Alice remarked that she felt this was something she would remember for the rest of our life.

And so it felt. It didn’t rank with Chamberlain’s sombre, regretful speech announcing war with Germany, or with Churchill’s “fight them on the beaches”. But, for most of my generally fortunate boomer generation, the Coronavirus pandemic is without doubt the global event that has most impacted us during our lifetimes.

Eleven months after the first UK lockdown was announced, over 120,000 people have died in this country, and over 2,500,000 globally – although these figures probably understate the toll. Many died without being able to see their loved ones. Many more have been seriously ill, some of whom will suffer long term health issues as a result.

Children have suffered huge disruption to their education and social development. Parents have struggled to juggle childcare, home schooling and working from home. Many have lost their jobs, especially in the hospitality and retail industries, and suffered financial hardship. Young professionals have had to pause their social lives. Health and frontline workers have worked tirelessly, at great personal risk, frequently under great stress. Old people have suffered loneliness, isolated from sons, daughters and grandchildren. Every life has been changed.

As a relatively young retired couple, we have thankfully (so far) been at the shallow end of the problem pool. Like everyone else we’ve had to cancel or postpone plans for outings and holidays, but had no very aged relatives to worry about, and no impact on our finances. But it’s been stressful at times, and frustrating to watch a year of our active retirement slipping by with our activities so constrained.

So when on the same day Alice (currently living at home) and I both became eligible to receive our vaccinations, we were quite excited. She qualified for an early vaccination because she suffers from Type 1 Diabetes, while I learned from a Facebook post that 64-year olds could now get a jab, when I had thought you still needed to be 65 to qualify. We were able to book appointments at Watford Town Hall within ten minutes of each other for the next day, and follow-up appointments nearly three months later.

We arrived at the temporary structure on the site, and were shown where to go by cheerful volunteers. “Follow that lady” I was told. “That’s my daughter” I said. “Follow that lovely lady” she corrected. The atmosphere was positive and cheerful, almost celebratory: the punters arriving for their vaccinations were very glad to be there, and the medical staff and volunteers – working non-stop – no doubt felt truly appreciated. After a short wait I was answering questions about my health and being told about the vaccine. At one point I had difficulty hearing what the nurse was saying, because at the next table Alice was making them laugh so much telling the story of her guava allergy.

Soon we were Oxford/AstraZeneca jabbed. We were asked to wait for a few minutes before leaving in case we developed an allergic reaction, or in case the injection caused a problem in my arm which might impede driving. Soon we were home, jab done.

Apparently the Covid vaccines are more than usually “reactogenic“. That is a posh medical word meaning it’s more likely to make you feel like crap. And indeed, we both felt achy and shivery for a while, but deemed it a small price to pay for protection against a lethal illness. Perversely, I felt some reassurance from the side effects: the injection must have had some effect.

There are many things wrong with Britain. But there was a moment in the vaccination centre when I took in the pop-up building, the bustling efficient staff, the smiling volunteers – an enormous logistical challenge, met so quickly and under such pressure. We grateful customers taking, we hoped, a vital step back to freedom. And I thought this is the country I want to live in.

This could, of course, turn out to be a false dawn. Perhaps the vaccination will prove ineffective against new Covid strains, and we’ll have to stay under lockdown, or return to it. There may be more bumps on the road to recovery. But as we stepped outside and felt a little warmth in the late February sun, it certainly started to feel like spring.

Smokey’s 49-year vacation

Why do I sometimes remember things that no-one else does? Do I make these memories up?

When, in January last year, I wrote Teacher’s Pet about my time at Watford Field Junior School, and put the article on a local Facebook group, a former fellow pupil called Andy Skinner commented on the article, and we began a conversation.

Something then stirred in my memory: something to do with Skinner, a party, my brother Rob, and a Motown single. Eventually it took shape. In about 1970, we – well, Rob – had owned a copy of the sublime Tracks of My Tears, by Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, and then he didn’t.

Lamenting its absence from the collection of singles in his collection he had blamed “Skinner” – we used surnames a lot at school, there were too many Johns and Richards – a boy in the year between us. As I recall, Rob had been at a party some time in the early 1970s, and he told me that Andy Skinner had “borrowed” the record to tape it. (Home Taping had already started Killing Music.)

In my mind this was tentatively associated with another Motown single of lesser status – although still a decent single – that we had in the pile, Do What You Gotta Do by the Four Tops, which peaked outside the top ten in 1969. My recollection was that it was a temporary swap which had become an indefinite one, as Rob and Andy’s paths hadn’t crossed again – at least not when they were carrying these Motown hits. In view of the difference in quality of the two records we felt somewhat cheated.

And here I was, unexpectedly in touch with Andy, someone I remembered from school, but only vaguely, as is the way with kids in a different year. So in a message to him I wrote, tongue in cheek, that Rob would like his copy of Tracks of My Tears back.

Perhaps unsurprisingly after so much time had elapsed, Andy replied that he had no memory of ‘blagging’ the record, nor did he remember Rob from school, and doubted if he owned the record. But when I tentatively suggested that if he found it, he might return it out of the blue to Rob, it appealed to his sense of humour and he readily agreed.

To Andy’s surprise, he did find Tracks of My Tears when he searched in his loft, so he dispatched it to Rob’s address with exactly the message you would send when returning something after 49 years.

I pictured Andy, in the Spotify era, wiring his cassette recorder up to the hi-fi like we all used to. I waited for the joke to find its mark, and in January 2020 Rob received the record and Andy’s note in the post. Rob and I have pranked each other in the past, so I wasn’t surprised that he sensed my hand in this and messaged me “This arrived today, without any address or any other clues. Don’t suppose it rings any bells with you?” I took that as a coded accusation. Well, really.

I tried to nudge his memory by sharing initially ‘vague’ recollections which soon became more specific, but in vain. He knew nothing about it, and the joke had fallen flat. I was prepared to leave it at that, and leave a bit of mystery in his life. But I wrote a follow-up article to Teacher’s Pet which mentioned Andy, and the game was up. Rob wrote “The Andy Skinner you wrote about. He wouldn’t be the same Andy Skinner that mysteriously returned the Tracks of My Tears single to me a couple of weeks ago, would he?” So: no joke, no mystery. Ah well.

So, did I make the whole thing up? Did I unintentionally spoof someone I barely remember from school into going up to his loft, locating a vintage 45 and randomly sending it to my brother? If so I’m actually quite proud. I understand that Picasso’s Girl With a Dove is on anonymous loan to the Courtauld Institute of Art in London. I might ask to have it back, if they don’t know where they got it from.

Perhaps I just remember something they don’t, even though I wasn’t directly involved: where music is involved my memory seems to be sharper. Or possibly, I remember the incident accurately, but have pinned it on the wrong guy. But it seems to be corroborated by Andy finding Tracks of My Tears when he didn’t think he owned it: also to some extent by the confirmed presence of Do What You Gotta Do in Rob’s collection – although Rob doesn’t recall how he acquired it, and Andy doesn’t recall ever owning it, so it hasn’t made a journey in the opposite direction. Most people are just too busy living their life to mentally archive it as they go.

But did you spot that line of marker just under the sleeve window? Perhaps there is writing behind that which might shed light on the mystery. I must ask Rob to take a look.

Room 101

Well I’ve done all the work, but the call hasn’t come yet. I diligently prepared a list of my pet hates – the small things that really annoy me, you’re not allowed to say Covid, Donald Trump or cancer – and they’re ready to go into Room 101, in the programme where guests try to persuade the host to consign their hates to oblivion. The name is inspired by the torture room in George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four which reputedly contained “the worst thing in the world”.

The BBC named the series ironically: Orwell was inspired by a meeting room in Broadcasting House where he had to sit through meetings he found extremely tedious. I’ve given up waiting, so I’m going to share my list. When they call me, I’ll have to think up some new ones.

Terms and conditions apply

Commercial radio boasts to potential advertisers that it has a captive audience, usually busy driving, cooking, doing something requiring concentration which makes them less likely to switch channels or turn the radio off. Perhaps that used to be me, but now I have acquired the energy and resolve to cut the radio off as soon as the adverts come on. The disclaimers made this leap possible.

So I would turn on the radio hoping for some decent music, and just when I thought the adverts had run their course…

Standard UK minutes and texts. Prices may change. Rolling monthly contract. New customers in low-cost areas only. Traffic prioritisation applies. Offer ends 14th of March. Terms apply. See Plus.net/mobile.

All of this delivered at a frantic pace – often tweaked electronically to make it faster. Sometimes delivered breathlessly as if it’s all a terribly funny joke. In some cases advertisers have been sanctioned by the Advertising Standards Authority for their disclaimers being read out inaudibly fast. Shut up, just shut up!

Me and Alan Bennett, we’re afraid of Virginia Woolf

When my wife told me that she had started reading To the Lighthouse but never finished it, my competitive spirit was awakened, and I set to work. I soon began to understand why she found finishing the damned book as difficult as the characters inside found it to reach the damned Lighthouse. Woolf doesn’t go out of her way to be readable: she’s very writerly, the Meryl Streep of literature, if you like. Take a look at this single sentence:

She had in mind at the moment, rich and poor, high and low; the great in birth receiving from her, half grudging, some respect, for had she not in her veins the blood of that very noble, if slightly mythical, Italian house, whose daughters, scattered about English drawing-rooms in the nineteenth century, had lisped so charmingly, had stormed so wildly, and all her wit and her bearing and her temper came from them, and not from the sluggish English, or the cold Scotch; but more profoundly, she ruminated the other problem, of rich and poor, and the things she saw with her own eyes, weekly, daily, here or in London, when she visited this widow, or that struggling wife in person with a bag on her arm, and a note-book and pencil with which she wrote down in columns carefully ruled for the purpose wages and spendings, employment and unemployment, in the hope that thus she would cease to be a private woman whose charity was half a sop to her own indignation, half a relief to her own curiosity, and become what with her untrained mind she greatly admired, an investigator, elucidating the social problem.

Note how the only help you get here is a couple of semicolons, one of which Woolf teasingly places in the first line, before any confusion has had time to arise. I ploughed doggedly on to the end of the sentence, and the book. And indeed my wife has also now reached that wretched Lighthouse.

But difficult though she can be, Woolf can leave her readers with indelible phrases and ideas, like the marvellous passage from the same book describing the feeling we experience when we reach the limit of our intellectual journey: in this case Mr Ramsay – sure of Q – struggles to reach R:

…he was a failure – that R was beyond him. He would never reach R. On to R, once more. R—

Another idea has stayed in my memory:

Mrs. Ramsay saying, “Life stand still here”; Mrs. Ramsay making of the moment something permanent… —this was of the nature of a revelation. In the midst of chaos there was shape; this eternal passing and flowing (she looked at the clouds going and the leaves shaking) was struck into stability. Life stand still here, Mrs. Ramsay said.

This passage has sometimes come back to me when contemplating a scene, typically at a family gathering in summer, suddenly knowing that the moment will be imprinted on my memory forever, like a photograph. So, maddening though she may be, perhaps I have too much respect for Virginia Woolf to put her into Room 101.

Rhubarb rhubarb rhubarb

School dinners are character building. Having to finish my lumpy mashed potato, cold custard, sour lettuce and watercress (or face the wrath of the dinner lady) taught me to tolerate most food even if I didn’t enjoy it, which helped me survive my bachelor days. But I drew the line at rhubarb. At primary school, it seemed to be the default pudding, we got it at least once a week. I hated it, and it wasn’t just the school dinner approximation – I have tried “high quality” rhubarb desserts occasionally since, with no more enjoyment.

“You have to add loads of sugar” they say. Quite. It’s only the sugar that makes it remotely palatable: historically it was more often used as a medicine, and only became a food in the 18th century when sugar became more affordable.

I had an auntie of whom I was very fond, who was an excellent cook. She grew rhubarb in her garden, and three times in a row when I visited, she served up her famous crumble. She thought me a very fussy eater. I’m really not. I just don’t like rhubarb.

Misterfuckingbluesky

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

It all started so promisingly for the Electric Light Orchestra. I had been a big fan of the Move, and keenly anticipated Roy Wood’s new project, which aimed to “pick up where the Beatles left off”, using classical instruments to play rock music. Their first single, 10538 Overture was distinctive and atmospheric. Soon after, Roy Wood left and Jeff Lynne took charge.

The Beatles, enabled by George Martin’s musical background, had indeed used classical instruments very effectively in their records from Yesterday through to Eleanor Rigby and I am the Walrus. But these were exceptional songs, and the Beatles “left off” for a good reason – they had already fully explored the possibilities of using orchestral instruments in a pop and rock setting.

And although ELO achieved a tolerably Beatle-ish sound, I always found their songs predictable and uninteresting, and suspected that their huge popularity owed more to nostalgia for the Beatles’ 60s heyday than to any real quality. My heart sinks whenever their ploddy lethargic chug comes on the radio.

And the worst is Mr Blue Sky. Thematically identical to Here Comes the Sun, DJs think it’s clever to play it on a sunny day. According to Dominic King on the BBC, the song features “the most freakatastic vocoder since Sparky’s Magic Piano” – and this is a good thing? This limp and self-regarding twaddle (thanks for that phrase Andrew) takes up five minutes and six seconds of your life. Then just when you think your suffering might be over, the song awards itself a self-congratulatory coda, topped off a vocoder finale, the cherry on this queasy cake. Eew.

Mock the weak

Michael Palin is rarely wrong, and usually polite. But in Staged, a 2021 scripted mock-Zoom programme featuring David Tennant and Michael Sheen, Palin appears in cameo, gushing about his love of Staged on camera but once “off-air” immediately challenges Sheen’s assertion that “improvised comedy has produced a lot of good things.” “Has it?” he responds bluntly, saying that he doesn’t find improvisation very funny – and that the Pythons always worked hard on their scripts. (Except Graham Chapman, allegedly).

This was scripted comedy, where the humour came from Tennant and Sheen’s disappointment at being brutally cut down by one of their heroes. And of course Palin can act. But perhaps he wasn’t having to: he appeared to show genuine irritation about the trend towards improvisation. The Monty Python team did indeed take their comedy very seriously, writing in teams, assembling for lively and sometimes difficult script meetings where some ideas were rejected and others refined, until they had a programme they thought fit to put in front of the public.

All this is time consuming and expensive. No wonder TV schedulers prefer improv: just give a couple of drinks to a handful of moderately amusing people, shove them in a studio for a few hours, and keep the best bits. Voila, you’ve got a show.

John Cleese once remarked that it took him a day to write five minutes of comedy, but it took Peter Cook five minutes. Peter Cook was an improv genius, but it wouldn’t work if he tried to wing it live on TV: his funniest sketches may have started off the cuff, but they were refined, edited and rehearsed before being aired.

Perhaps the problem is that we know it’s a recording – if it were truly live, there would be a sense of danger – we would be more impressed with their speed and spontaneity. But knowing that it can be edited and cleaned up post-recording gives it the sterile safety of a circus viewed on TV. And the knowledge that the comics are able to prepare their material before the show provides another jeopardy-sapping safety net.

Improv comedy shows – on TV at least – make me feel like the only sober person at a loud party, assailed by competitive and aggressive – sometimes bullying – banter. They’re cheap, they’re lazy, and they’re fake.

Harry Kane to score next goal 6/1

Hard man actor Ray Winstone can often be seen on TV exhorting us, in his manly way, to wager with Bet365, typically during half time at football matches, when viewers might be tempted to add spice to a dull game in which they have no emotional investment. What kind of a man are you, he appears to be saying, if you won’t make a bet on how many corners West Bromwich Albion will be awarded in the big match against Fulham? More than fifty years after the Stones sang “he can’t be a man ’cause he doesn’t smoke the same cigarettes as me” they’re still trying to pull this crap on us.

Advertisers will advertise, of course. But in the UK TV cigarette adverts were banned from 1965, and tobacco and cigar adverts were banned from 1991. Alcoholic drinks have very tight restrictions on TV advertising. Just like tobacco and alcohol, gambling ruins lives – sometimes not only those of the gamblers, but their families’ lives too.

That such aggressive and high profile TV advertising is still allowed in 2021 for an unambiguously harmful industry is testament to the tenacity, efficacy and probably the generosity of the gambling lobby. It stinks.

A loose affiliation of millionaires and billionaires and baby

Twenty or thirty years ago, conspiracy theories were the preserve of a few harmless eccentrics on the fringes of society. Not any more: encouraged by the internet and an unhinged US president, they’ve gone mainstream. A majority of Trump voters believe their man was cheated by a liberal/Democrat conspiracy…many people believe Coronavirus was invented by a wealthy elite to oppress the population…people use the abbreviation MSM for mainstream media as if the BBC, the Daily Mail, the Sun, the Guardian and the Financial Times were homogeneous, all part of the same plot.

How strange, how baffling, how sad that the miracle of the internet, which puts so much of the world’s knowledge and wisdom in our pockets, has led us to this. This is an echo of an earlier period of history when the increasing affordability of printing, besides spreading knowledge and wisdom, led to an explosion of scurrilous pamphlets. It has never been easier to find information. But it has also never been easier to find lies, or for idiots and charlatans to amplify their voices. The curation of social media leads us into echo chambers which confirm and strengthen our opinions, causing ever sharper divisions in political discourse.

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

Why do these bizarre notions have such wide currency? The traditional image of a conspiracy theorist is of a sad, lonely, underwashed young man, looking for reasons to justify his lack of success. But now these ideas are put forward by clean, intelligent looking people with every appearance of respectability, and have gained hugely in popularity. Time will tell whether we are witnessing a temporary mania or a permanent structural shift away from evidence, truth and science towards superstition and belief – a return to an intellectual dark age. If it’s the latter, the outlook is bleak.

Roadworks on the A9 north of Inverness

Travel news next on BBC Radio 2! Yay. We have satnavs and Google Maps to give us up-to-the-moment information on the traffic ahead of us on the journeys we are actually making. Who in London is concerned about the Exeter by-pass, who in Manchester about the Hanger Lane gyratory? Beeb, please, stop boring us with irrelevant information and take a step into the 21st century.

Sorry about that, I feel better now. Entering month eleven of lockdown we all need a bit of a moan about something. Better splurge it out online than shout at the lady in the Co-op, I guess.

The Sneeze

You can learn a lot from the way someone sneezes. When I joined a stockbroking startup in the 1990s, there was a quiet, highly competent nineteen year old called Sarah working in our back office. We soon noticed that if we needed something done, she would do it quickly and correctly, and we’d never have to ask twice. She was modest, almost meek in her demeanour. But she had a huge sneeze, sudden, high pitched and proud, which could be heard from distant offices.

Soon her diligence and ability were recognised, and she was promoted to an extremely well rewarded position as finance director while still very young. I didn’t recognise it at the time, but that mighty sneeze spoke of appetite and ambition, and marked her for greatness.

Our personal sneezing sound is typically set during youth, and everyone has their own signature style. Sneezes come in many varieties: the Splat, the Shout, the Kitten, the Mouse, the Squib, the Cannon… there is surely scope for academic research into how sneezing style might relate to personality. According to Doctor Gordon Siegel, a Chicago otolaryngologist, although sneezing is an involuntary part of the body’s defences, we can exercise a degree of control over the sound that comes out: Siegel cites an acquaintance who has successfully engineered his sneezes to come out as ‘horseshit!’

And there was F. Despite having a perfectly good name like Ian – ok, very like Ian – he preferred to be known by the name of a twentieth century European dictator. He enjoyed leading the team, and tried to play up the blokey side of his character, but was handicapped in this by his preference for eating chocolate bars over drinking in the pub. F would never sneeze in singles, but in bursts, and when this was happening he would intersperse his sternutation with expletives of increasing strength: Achoo! Bugger. Achoo! Bloody hell. Achoo! Oh fuck. This performance was designed to suggest a brave commander leading his troops onward into battle, despite suffering difficulties under which a lesser man would have buckled.

When Dad sneezed, he would pump his arm vigorously across his chest, as if the rest of his body was offering his nose moral support. A few years ago I took to doing this myself in half-mocking, affectionate tribute, but it’s now become just another habit. Also, I shout, AH-HOO! along with the sneeze, to make sure I’m the centre of attention, and that everyone else in the room knows what I’m going through. This moment belongs to me. And that’s not…excuse me…horseshit!

Llanuwchllyn

Gwerfyl looked out from the Eagles pub where we having dinner, where five people I didn’t recognise were seated at a table.

“Three of those people are your relatives”. That should have surprised me, but it didn’t. After all, this was Llanuwchllyn.

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When my father died in 2015, it fell to me to sort out his papers. It wasn’t an especially onerous task: Dad was very organised, and everything was carefully filed. Once I had bundled up anything financial or legal for the solicitor, I was left with three envelopes containing information about the family: one for each of Dad’s parents, and one for Mum’s mother. Dad hadn’t created a family tree himself, but he had kept documents and letters from family members who had sought or provided information. The absence of an envelope for Mum’s father was, I think, only because there had been no correspondence from this quarter of the family.

I kept the envelopes safe, but thought no more of it until January 2017, when I sustained a heel injury trying to run further than I should. I thought that uploading the information I had inherited would make an interesting replacement for running as a winter diversion. But once I had signed up to Ancestry.com and started to add the data, momentum took me straight past that point, and into new researches as the website pointed me towards ancestors, great-uncles, great-aunties and cousins I had never known about. My family tree kept on growing.

I knew all four of my grandparents, and each had been strongly associated with a particular place. Nain (Dad’s mother) came from the Toxteth area of Liverpool. Some of Mum’s mother Sallie’s family can still be found around the Chirk and Wrexham area of north Wales where Sallie grew up, and Mum’s father Jack grew up and lived most of his life in Wallasey on the Wirral.

But it was my father’s father, Bob Edwards (or Taid as I knew him), whose extended family is still most closely connected to his childhood home. He was born on his father Evan’s farm Pantclyd, in Llanuwchllyn, North Wales, into a family which had farmed the area for generations. He was the fourth child of the nine who survived infancy.

Of course, this meant that my father had many cousins, and I have many second cousins descended from my great grandparents. And because Llanuwchllyn is a farming community, and the land is owned by family members, many still live in the area. But my Dad didn’t generally make much effort to keep in touch with his Welsh family, perhaps because he didn’t speak the language fluently.

Pantclyd held a fascination for me, no doubt in part because the house in Dolgellau where our family stayed with Nain and Taid when I was a boy was also called Pantclyd, renamed by Taid presumably in tribute to his childhood home. When I found out from a correspondent on Ancestry that an Edwards – Eiddon Edwards – was living in Pantclyd (Llanuwchllyn) my curiosity was aroused. Was the house and farm where my grandfather was born in 1883 still in the family, nearly 140 years later?

So I wrote an old-fashioned paper letter to Pantclyd, and within a couple of days Eiddon had emailed back confirming that he was indeed my second cousin. Pantclyd had come to him through his grandfather Llewelyn and his parents Idris and Ann. When he mentioned that his brother Geraint owned a couple of holiday cottages which he rented out, I resolved to make the trip to visit the Land of My Fathers.

I contacted Geraint, and booked up a week in September 2020 – he was kind enough to give us mates’ rates. During the Coronavirus lockdown, it looked doubtful whether the trip could still take place, so we were grateful to arrive at Talybont.

Talybont

Prominent from the main road past Llanuwchllyn as we arrived was the statue of Sir Owen Morgan Edwards and his son Sir Ifan ab Owen Edwards. Sir Owen was my great grandfather Evan’s second cousin. It was the first time I’d seen any relatives honoured with a statue.

Sir Owen and his son Ifan were both champions of the Welsh language. Owen was an academic, and published many books and magazines promoting Welsh poets and writers. He also became a wealthy man, leaving an estate of £17,500 – a tidy sum in 1920. Ifan set up Urdd Gobaith Cymru (the Welsh League of Youth) which among other things, organises the Youth Eisteddfod.

I couldn’t go to Llanuwchllyn without visiting the grave of my great grandparents Evan and Elin Edwards, buried along with their son Thomas.

We were delighted to have been invited to Pantclyd, where we enjoyed a lovely lunch with Eiddon, his wife Heledd and their two young sons. Besides being my taid’s birthplace, two much sadder stories attached to Pantclyd. Two of Taid’s brothers died young: my namesake and great uncle Richard Edwards tragically drowned there in 1905 at the age of 20.

Eiddon took me on a tour of the grounds, and showed me the pool under a waterfall – perhaps where this happened.

Taid’s oldest brother Evan John also died young, in a shooting accident, just three years later at the age of 30.

Pantclyd is now a happy family home after being comprehensively renovated and extended in recent years by Eiddon, a builder by trade.

An undoubted highlight of the trip was visiting my dad’s favourite cousin Arthur Jones with his daughter Gwerfyl for morning coffee. Arthur is now a lively 98, full of stories and laughter. He pings out emails from his iPad like a young ‘un, and a couple of hours before we arrived he sent me a Facebook friend request.

Arthur Jones

Arthur fought in the Battle of Normandy with the Welsh Guards, arriving a few days (“Quite soon enough, thank you!”) after D-Day. He was a tank driver and fitter: he explained how his job was to drive the one at the rear: if a tank broke down, a fitter would have to get out of the tank – sometimes under fire – to replace the faulty part. Many fitters did not survive the war.

After the war Arthur had the less dangerous task of guard duty outside Buckingham Palace, and recalls that the young princesses Elizabeth and Margaret could be demanding employers, sending through reprimands if they felt they had not been saluted sufficiently smartly when returning to the Palace in the small hours.

Arthur later bumped into my dad in London at the Victory Parade on the Mall on June 8 1946.

“When it was all over and we were waiting for the crowd to disperse, suddenly an airman stood in front of me, Aelwyn!! He had spotted me as we marched down the Mall to our positions! We hadn’t met for years. The Sergeant Major who was standing in front of me turned round to blast me for talking on parade then decided to let it go!”

Being only 17 when the war started, Arthur at 98 is one the younger veterans, and has been in demand for TV interviews in recent years, sought after for his vivid and lucid wartime reminiscences.

His brother Rhys, eighteen years his senior, also fought in the Battle of Normandy: some twenty years after the war he wrote his wartime memoirs. When Rhys died in 1974 his daughter Mair found his story among his papers and circulated it to the family, and Arthur translated it from Welsh into English. It makes fascinating if sometimes difficult reading.

After the war Arthur went from tank to tanker: for four years he drove the milk tanker from the local creamery to Liverpool every day – in an unheated cabin through the bitter winter of 1947 – before being promoted to an office job as assistant manager. Eventually in 1965 he took over his brother’s shop and ran the sub post office with his wife Mair, before retiring eighteen years later.

Unfortunately I only took an interest in the family tree after my parents died, and there are many questions I would have like to ask my mum and dad about their childhood, their parents, grandparents, cousins, great-uncles and great-aunties, and all the other family anecdotes. So to meet someone like Arthur, who remembers my dad as a child, and has so many stories to tell, is very precious.

One story concerns his Aunty Maggie, my nain, a schoolteacher.

“Aunty Maggie was a very doughty lady indeed whose first words to us when she arrived on a visit were “Let me see your books!” Homework and satchels would vanish when we heard Uncle Bob’s car outside!”

Arthur also told an amusing story about my dad Aelwyn which I hadn’t heard before. Maggie told her son Aelwyn – about ten at the time – to take Arthur, about eight, who was round at their house for a day – for a walk up the hill from their house in Dolgellau. Perhaps Maggie had put up with as much noise from the boys as she could. Anyway, it seems Aelwyn resented being put in charge of his young cousin and he wanted to watch the cricket match: so he abandoned Arthur at the top of the hill and ran back down so he wouldn’t miss the first over. When taken to task, apparently, he replied that he had only been told to take Arthur up the hill.

Arthur is the fount of all knowledge about the Llanuwchllyn tree, and I wasn’t the first visitor hungry for family stories. On seeing a photo of his grandmother Elin, who died was Arthur was thirteen, he volunteered “I don’t think she had a tooth in her mouth!” He keeps an extensive family tree on a long paper scroll, much consulted by local genealogists.

A small section of Arthur’s legendary family tree

Visiting in September 2020, we were restricted in what we could do. We weren’t able to bring our daughters along, or shake hands with my newly found relatives as I would wish. But I was able to meet four second cousins for the first time – the fourth being Irwyn, to whom Gwerfyl introduced us at the Eagles – and renew my acquaintance with the wonderful Arthur. Having lived near London and worked in the City for most of my life, I could have felt like a foreigner in a part of Britain where English is very much the second language. But the people were welcoming, and instead I felt the warm embrace of my Welsh family. It felt like coming home.

In contrast to the sad stories of Richard and Evan John, Debbie and I stumbled on a much happier tale from Pantclyd’s more recent history. We were walking up the Aran from Llanuwchllyn, headed towards a ladder stile over the corner of a stone wall. There was nobody in sight, until a man and woman emerged from our right. We met at the stile, and got chatting. I mentioned that we had visited Pantclyd, and he said he had grown up in a farm along the valley. His name was Robin, and his wife was Gill.

Gill then told how, when she was a girl, her family was on a camping holiday in Llanuwchllyn, when they were cut off from their destination by flooding. They were saved by Geraint and Eiddon’s father Idris Edwards, who allowed them to camp at Pantclyd. They liked it so much they ended up coming back every year. During their time staying at Pantclyd, Jill met Robin in the local chapel, and they were married in 1967.

Assuming that everyone in Llanuwchllyn would know Arthur, I mentioned that we had visited him, and Robin confirmed that he knew ‘Arthur shop’ and that they were related, to some degree. Arthur was able to confirm that Robin was indeed my third cousin, and for good measure, that he was Sir Robin, a noted physicist who had served as Vice-Chancellor at the University of Wales, Swansea for nine years. What were my chances of walking up a remote hill and bumping into a cousin and a knight of the realm? In Llanuwchllyn, I’d say, quite high.

Diolch, Llanuwchllyn!

The Copper Bowl

Not a bowl made of copper, but one containing mostly 1p and 2p coins, awkward change from those days when cash was commonplace. It struck me that many houses in my village, Chorleywood – where most residents are lucky enough not to need every penny – might have just such a bowlful, waiting to be collected for a charity.

It was late summer 2011: like many others I was saddened by the terrible drought and famine in East Africa, and the Disaster Emergency Committee had launched an appeal. I thought of our copper bowl. I had time – a week of unused holiday – and I had pent-up energy accumulated during a long injury induced break from running. I decided to carry out a local collection. If that was successful, perhaps it could be scaled up nationally. Could this be my Geldof moment? First, I would have to see how it went in Chorleywood.

There are rules to follow, you can’t just go round rattling a tin. You have to apply to your local licensing authority – in my case Three Rivers District Council – for a licence.

The licence duly came through, and my bluff was called. Now I had to do it. I based my plan of campaign on a 2005 Electoral Register of Chorleywood West, the most recent I could get my hands on. From this I calculated there were 2,003 households to target for collection. My first task was to get the flyers designed and printed.

I ordered plenty of these A4 flyers, folded in half to A5, ready for insertion into clear sealable plastic bags for delivery. The idea was that householders could simply tip their spare coins into the bag ready for collection.

2,003, I discovered, is a large number of houses, especially in a fairly rural area like Chorleywood, where there are many long driveways, and lengthy walks between them. Luckily I had help from my wife, a daughter, some of her friends, and one or two friends dotted round the village.

The main distribution effort coincided with some of the hottest October weather seen in England, with temperatures approaching 30°C, which made a full day’s delivery challenging. But this was still the easy part. The challenge was always going to be the collection, with the embarrassment of approaching strangers to ask them for money.

By the time we had finished delivering the leaflets, it was time to start collecting from our starting point. I made up some simple but authentic ‘Authorised Collector” badges, and I began in my own road, where I had an early taste of the range of responses I could expect. One man opened his door, stared at me blankly while I made my brief pitch, then shook his head silently and closed the door. One lady opened her purse, and on failing to find much in the way of change, considered for a moment before placing a ten pound note in the bag.

One man who lived in a large gated house resisted the temptation use the intercom to tell me to go away: instead he buzzed the gate to allow me to approach his front door, where he made a donation. Perhaps he wished to dispel the impression that visitors to his castle weren’t welcome. Most gave something, but only one or two fitted my target profile – the ones who had accumulated small change that they didn’t need, which they were happy to donate.

As we ventured further into Chorleywood, a pattern emerged. We were doing this at a difficult time of year: the kids were at school and many houses were empty. By the time the occupants had returned it would be too dark to be knocking on doors. We made two attempts to collect from each address: if the second was unsuccessful we put a slip through the door.

My first full day of collections was only patchily successful, and I hadn’t needed any trips back to my car to relieve the weight of my shoulder bag. But one man said yes, I’ve got a whole shoebox full of 1p and 2p coins. Do you really want them? Yes, I explained, that’s exactly what we’re looking for. They’re in the attic, he said, can you come back in an hour? And there it was, a big box of coins. It took me twenty minutes to count and bag it, but I didn’t mind. For reasons which might not reflect well on me, I’ve always enjoyed counting money.

A number of encounters stayed in my mind. There was a very trusting old lady who asked me inside and chatted for ten minutes while she fussed around trying to find the bag. Don’t worry, I said, I’ve got plenty of spares. No, she said, it’s here somewhere. Of course she was just lonely and wanted a chat. There was a picture of a smiling boy in a stadium wearing a baseball cap. “My grandson” she said quietly. “They’re in America. I don’t see them very often.”

I reached the house of a friend of ours. She said she’d seen the leaflet and thought it was a great idea. “How’s it going?” she asked. It had been a slow morning. “So far I’ve got more material for a book than money” I replied glumly. They kept a jar for small change in their hallway so large that she needed my help to safely tip it out. “This is the moment it’s been waiting for” she said. That’s what I call a friend. Time to stop for the morning and end on a high.

One man said he had an accumulation of foreign coins, would I accept those? I thought, why not, we could get something for them. Another man raised his finger and said “Wait a minute.” He soon came with a Swiss 50 franc note, with about a quarter missing. “You’re welcome to this if you can use it.’ After a little research, I posted it off to the Swiss National Bank, and within a few days they sent back a brand new 50 franc note. Now that’s a country which takes its currency seriously. I was able to exchange it for about £35.

When my wife was collecting she called on one of the grandest houses in Chorleywood, a mansion in a row of mansions. The lady of the house invited her in, and then spent fifteen minutes explaining why she wasn’t going to give anything.

Of course, no-one is obliged to donate – after all, it’s their money. I’m not too fond of cold-callers on the doorstep myself. Many said they had already made a contribution to the TV appeal. But to gratuitously waste the collector’s time seemed a step too far. Perhaps she was lonely too.

There is an artist well-known in the village, who contributed generously, and then said “Now it’s your turn.” She had up a charitable foundation in the name of her son who had died tragically young, and asked for a donation. I was happy to oblige, reassuring her that the money was coming from my own pocket.

One of the incidental benefits of the project was the opportunity to get up close to some interesting and beautiful local houses. For years I had been amused by a sign announcing a house named after a southern US state, tucked out of sight down a long driveway. It seemed an absurd name for a house in commuter belt Hertfordshire. But on approach it was a large white house with a grand portico, surrounded by open country. With the unseasonably blue sky behind it, it could have been a plantation house in the Deep South.

One finding from our team of collectors was that we obtained better results collecting in our own roads, where we were better known and (hopefully) trusted. If I had been able to recruit a collector for each road, as well as having much less work to do, we might have collected more.

As the collection drew to a close, it was gratifying to receive a number of phone calls from people who had been out when I called, many with large piles of coins to contribute. It felt good to ring a doorbell knowing my visit was welcome.

I had my eye on another source of funds. In the City dealing room where I worked was a huge glass jar, into which people would drop their small change and leftover holiday coins and notes. Over a few years it had filled to a point where it took two people to move it. Having established that there was no plan to empty it and no proposed use for its contents, I was allowed to annex it.

But before simply tipping out the contents and counting them, I had another wheeze to increase revenue: a charity competition at £10 a ticket. Entrants had to guess the total value of UK currency in the jar, and half of the ticket money would be given out in prizes for the three closest guesses. Twenty-five entrants meant another £125 for the appeal.

The entries provided support for the idea of the wisdom of the crowd, with the mean of all the guesses coming in within 3% of the correct figure – although one respected analyst was so spectacularly wide of the mark that subsequently I regarded his work with scepticism. Some colleagues volunteered to help out on a quiet afternoon , and we spent a happy half hour counting. That jar contained £263.56 in British money, just 94p away from the winning guess. Adding in the money from the competition and the proceeds of selling a few Euros, the jar brought in nearly £400. It was quite an effort to take that lot to the bank.

Once all the collections were finished, and the coins bagged up, I drove my overburdened car to the nearest bank that was open on a Saturday morning to deposit it into the DEC East Africa Appeal account. I also found a dealer where I could exchange the accumulation of foreign coins. Adding everything together, we had raised £2,603.56 – the local contribution averaging slightly more than £1 per house.

Was it worth it? Yes of course, we raised a decent sum of money for an excellent cause, and the experience of planning and carrying out the collection was interesting and mostly enjoyable, if sometimes exhausting. Would I do it again? Well, no. The most stressful part was ringing on strangers’ doorbells. Perhaps I’m not sufficiently thick-skinned. And though we raised a worthwhile amount, it didn’t seem amazing for the effort and time we had put in. It would have been much easier to work (even) harder in my regular job and make a personal donation.

From Chorleywood Magazine

I remember calling on a house occupied by a couple I took to be recently retired. The man took me into his garage to show me some neatly arranged storage jars he had accumulated, each filled with a different denomination: 1p, 2p, 5p and 10p. He hadn’t really known what he was going to do with them, so he seemed quite grateful to have the opportunity to put them to good use. While he took them away to decant them, I chatted to his wife. “That’s a very kind gesture of your husband” I commented. Her face softened and her eyes seemed to lose their focus.

“Yes. That’s the kind of man he is.”