School days

“Gather round and see what Edwards has done.”

I saw as a boy – and sometimes participated in – the trouble which smart and lively adolescents can give their teachers, and probably my first career decision was to remove this profession from the reckoning. My unhappy tenure as a prefect confirmed this view.

The victim of our cruellest baiting was a student teacher of Physics to our fifth form (year 11). He had a tough job: our class 5𝛂 was an arts form made up of the higher Latin O-level set. Attitudes were tribal – many of the class were reluctant to learn the sciences – and we had already given this nervous trainee a tough time in his lessons.

So he was pleasantly surprised in double Physics one day to find himself in front of a model class. We listened attentively, we asked relevant questions, and we supplied intelligent answers. You could see his gratification: he started to relax, daring to believe he might after all have this teaching thing nailed.

Then the bell went, marking the halfway point of the double period. That was our signal. There was a sudden outbreak of coughing. Boys started loud conversations. Paper planes started flying round the room. Within a minute the hapless trainee had been forced to bring in our regular teacher, Mr Banbury, to restore order and sit in for the rest of the lesson to maintain discipline.

But there were many masters (as we called teachers in our very traditional school) who could inspire. I concluded that they had to earn respect, perhaps with a touch of fear, before they could move to a more relaxed, informal style allowing some banter. It was a big mistake to try to be too friendly too soon.

There was Mr Wolton, who took over the Maths lessons in our first year when our form teacher – whose main subject was Chemistry – found himself already out of his depth. Seeing me bored with the pace of the lessons, he brought in some extra books for me to work on. I was flattered and enthused, although that enthusiasm didn’t stretch all the way to calculus.

Mr Oldham was a plummy voiced French master – allegedly blessed with the middle name Godolphin – always entertaining and instructive. He told a useful story about how a pupil had corrected him during an oral examination: in response to Mr Oldham’s question “Ça dépend sur quoi?” the boy had pointedly replied “Ça dépend de” So when my oral came, I answered one question beginning “Ça dépend de” and saw a smile of appreciation that his anecdote had landed. He introduced us to Molière and Racine, and inspired me with a love of Voltaire.

School Calendar, Summer Term 1970

Mr Oldham loved to teach, and it showed. Not so with Beery, so called because of his permanently red face. This was likely caused by a skin condition rather than alcohol consumption but we didn’t know or care. He was taciturn, grumpy and unenthusiastic – Van Morrison without the music. In my second year (year 8) Beery set us a task in English of writing a story set on a North Sea oil rig. We were required to fill at least a page of our exercise books: as I recall, my story ran to two and a half pages, and I poured my creative little soul into it. It came back with two spelling corrections and a tiny red tick at the end. That was my feedback.

Nor was his sports teaching more energetic. On icy days during hockey practice, while we were standing around in our tiny shorts, our gloveless fingers frozen onto our sticks, he would demonstrate a technique one-handed, keeping his left hand cosy in his jogger pants. There was also the time that he returned to the school after supervising a cross country run with two boys unaccounted for, although the boys must share the blame for that.

Some thirty years ago my Mum showed me an obituary for this “much loved” teacher in the Watford Observer. My response was uncharitable. I said there had been many excellent teachers at the school, but he wasn’t one of them.

One of the best was our Divinity master Mr (later Dr) Raper, who had a professorial air but remained approachable. When the class had finished sniggering at his name, he taught us about each different religion in turn. Soon he had taken us through the basic principles of Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism, Judaism, Shinto and Sikhism, and offered objective comparisons with Christianity. It struck me they couldn’t all be right. But they could all be wrong, and my childhood faith was shaken.

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

The year after Mr Raper taught us, Mr Lister – known for some reason as “Fanny” – took over. Divinity was rebranded – for us at least – as Scripture. Fanny was terrifying. A thin, austere figure, he was probably in his sixties, although he appeared at least ninety to us: he had white hair and a white moustache, and was one of the handful of staff who persisted in wearing a gown. He resembled an older version of Bunter’s Mr Quelch.

His lesson was first period on Thursday morning, which made for a restless Wednesday night. Lister would give us a passage of the Authorised Version to learn – maybe fifteen or twenty verses – and set us a test the following week.

It was usually from the Old Testament, full of difficult names and smiting. If there was any spiritual content, I never discerned it. The pass mark for the test was 7/10, and you could get a detention for failing. Of course we all crammed the text into our heads on the way to school on Thursday morning, so it was completely forgotten by the weekend.

“Dusty” Miller was also a disciplinarian. A martinet of military aspect, he taught Maths, and under his iron glare the brightest pupil could fumble his answer and have his ear grabbed. For a while he was placed in charge of set two of five: when the test results of Set 3 nosedived – because nobody wanted to be “promoted” – equilibrium was restored only when Dusty was moved to take charge of the bottom set. He famously challenged someone in the quad, asking them why they weren’t wearing school uniform. The young man replied “Because I’m a teacher.” Dusty could be funny, but as his humour was used to intimidate and humiliate – and because we all knew we could be next – he didn’t get many laughs.

Truncheon no.2, 4th December 1972

Probably the scariest teacher for me was Mr Vale, the woodwork teacher. In fairness to him, half of my fear came from the woodwork itself, my worst school subject by a mile. We decided he must have had a chip on his shoulder, being one of only two masters in the School Calendar not boasting letters after his name. It was double woodwork early on Wednesday morning during the first half of my first year, and I could never eat much breakfast. I’m still haunted by the sound or Mr Vale’s voice: “Gather round and see what Edwards has done.”

The Second Master (or deputy head) Mr Topsfield was another of the older masters. Bald, with a physically tough appearance, he was strict, regarded as enforcer for our younger, outwardly more progressive Head Master. But Topsfield was seen as straightforward and fair, and was respected. One torrential Friday afternoon I was standing dripping wet at the stop after missing my bus when Mr Topsfield pulled up, flung open the passenger door and said “You live in Chorleywood, don’t you Edwards? Do you want a lift?” I accepted, and we chatted as he drove me to my front door. I warmed to his relaxed good humour, and liked him better afterwards. Understandably no teacher would put themselves in that position now, and children must be protected, but still I feel we’ve lost something.

Most older teachers struggled to connect once they were closer in age to the boys’ grandfathers than their fathers. Some, like Dusty and Fanny exercised fierce discipline, and those who did not often became laughing stocks and could have a torrid time. Like the language master who had to endure boys yelling “Cyril!” behind his back. Or the Classics master – who could be an inspiring teacher, but while I was at the school he went from being seen as a likeable eccentric to being the object of ridicule. He liked to place his chair atop the table at the front of class. One day a helpful boy placed his chair there before he arrived, but with one of the back legs hanging half off the back. Thank god the master noticed and adjusted the chair before taking his position.

Harder to comprehend were the younger teachers who persisted although they clearly hated it. Typically they had tried too soon to be seen as friendly, had accrued no respect and could not keep discipline. In many jobs you can get through from nine to five without any enthusiasm and take home your pay, but teaching seems a dreadful career to be stuck in if you’re not suited – each day a parade of humiliations.

Some teachers seemed to be stuck in a rut, perhaps because they had stayed at the school too long. One French master seemed rather jaded. He could be very good with boys individually, but he seemed to hate kids en masse. Even we could tell that his French accent was weak – we had real French audio for comparison – and my French exchange partner from the suburbs of Paris didn’t hide his amusement when he heard it. But this teacher’s real passion was music, and despite plainly finding us all very irritating, he cajoled 120 first form boys into giving rousing performances of The Daniel Jazz and The Jonah Man Jazz. We had a glimpse of his real personality during a fairly downbeat music lesson when to illustrate a point he suddenly launched into a rollicking passage of boogie-woogie piano. He was clearly a man of energy, talent and passion, but most days we saw little of it.

When it was my turn to be a parent at parents’ evenings, I observed my daughters’ teachers with a critical eye – especially perhaps in the case of the older girl, who attended a fee paying school. There was the French teacher who had announced a test in class: when the girls protested that they didn’t want one (“Could we not?”) she had simply backed down. She expressed a wish that our daughter would continue to study French: she hadn’t noticed that our daughter hated foreign languages in general, and French in particular. One Economics teacher had temporarily confused her class by asserting that if you increase a number by 10%, then decrease the result by 10%, you end up back at the same number. We weren’t impressed either, and as we came away from our meeting I urged our daughter “Please tell me you have a good Economics textbook.”

Many of their teachers, like mine, were excellent, but the variation in ability and enthusiasm was as wide as ever. True of any profession, of course, but teachers are particularly exposed. If you’re not up to the job, the kids will find you out: but if you’re one of those with the gift to connect and to inspire, they will remember you with affection for the rest of their lives.


Post script. After writing the above, I managed to track down my second year English exercise book, which gives me the opportunity to test my memory of fifty-four years ago against the hard evidence. There, dated 28th February 1969, is Explosion on the Rig. In fact it is five pages long, not two and a half. There are three spelling corrections, not two. The red tick is not so tiny. And there was more feedback. In the same red ink, he had written “Well done!” with an exclamation mark. Beery, I owe you an apology. R.I.P. sir.

Shakespeare’s Lost Years by Aelwyn Edwards

Venice. Reproduced in Social England, ed. H.D.Traill.

For many years my father Aelwyn Edwards was fascinated by William Shakespeare’s “Lost Years” – the period in Shakespeare’s life for which historians and biographers have little or no information. He believed that Shakespeare might have travelled to Italy – specifically Venice – during this time. He undertook a good deal of his research in the two years following his retirement in 1979, and revisited his work periodically for the rest of his life, examining archives in Britain and in Venice for evidence which would confirm his theory. He didn’t find anything substantial, but I present his paper here to make it available, and in the hope that anyone who is aware of any supporting evidence might get in touch.

My daughter Rachel has also written a piece on Aelwyn’s Shakespeare theory in her Rare Accidents blog. This is based on a shorter piece Aelwyn wrote which was placed online by my brother Rob in 2007.



A great many words have been written about the life of William Shakespeare, but for all this, and for all the research that has been carried out, there are still significant areas of his life of which little or nothing is known. Mysteries surround much of his early life; let us examine some of these:


Shakespeare, born in April 1564, appears to have left Stratford-upon-Avon in or about 1585, aged about 21; his twins Hamnet and Judith were christened on 2nd February of that year. He is known to have been in London in 1593, the year in which his poem “Venus and Adonis” was published, but there is also some evidence, which is widely accepted, that he had been in London from about 1590 or 1591 working as an actor and playwright. There is no information whatsoever concerning his whereabouts or movements during what have become known as the “lost years” between 1585 and 1590. During this five-year period he appears to have developed, without the benefit of a university education, from a youth bred against the modest background of a glover’s household in a quiet provincial town, to the man of towering intellect whose works have come down to us today. Indeed, it has often been suggested that his plays could not possibly have been written by a man of such modest origins, thereby generating theories based on the assumption that they were written by someone else entirely. The background to Shakespeare’s remarkable development may not be fully understood, but almost any explanation is likely to be more credible than those invoking other writers, however eminent.

The most generally accepted view of Shakespeare’s whereabouts between the years 1585 and 1590 is that he spent part or all of this period as a schoolmaster; this experience would hardly have sufficed to effect the transformation from the provincial schoolboy to the poet and dramatist that we know. Something more is needed.


Some of Shakespeare’s plays are based on English history, and others on Greek and Roman history as described by Plutarch in English translation; in all these plays, the location is predetermined by the origin of the story. Nineteen plays fall into neither of those categories, and of these, fourteen are concerned with events in the Mediterranean region, with an especial bias towards cities in the Venetian State, particularly Venice, Padua and Verona. These plays display a remarkable understanding of Italian customs and ceremonials, together with an intimate awareness of the ambience of Italian life. It should be self-evident that any author who writes convincingly about a foreign country will have gained his knowledge at first hand. Only very rarely, however, has the possibility been considered that Shakespeare could have travelled abroad. Instead, the currently accepted view is that his intimate knowledge of foreign parts was acquired, astonishingly, as a result of accosting total strangers in London taverns and engaging them in conversation.

Again, something more is needed.


References to Shakespeare’s life-style in London in the early 1590’s invariably comment with surprise at how much money he appeared to have at his disposal. It is known with reasonable certainty that in 1596 he was able to pay off his father’s considerable debts, and went to the expense of renewing his father’s application for a Coat of Arms. In 1597 he bought New Place, one of the largest houses in Stratford, and, about that time, he acquired a shareholding in the Lord Chamberlain’s Company of players, of which he was a member.

It is inconceivable that Shakespeare could have attained this degree of affluence from his earnings as an actor and playwright in the early 1590’s. As an actor he appears to have played only minor roles and, with actors at that time being regarded as lesser members of society, he was unlikely to have been highly paid. With regard to his earnings as a playwright, it was the custom at that time for plays to be purchased outright from the authors by the theatre companies, so that any success attending a particular play would enrich the company and not the author. We learn from the diaries of Philip Henslowe, manager of one such theatre company, that £6 was an average sum being paid for a play in 1598, and even Ben Jonson was, in 1602, paid only £10 for a play entitled “Richard Crookback”. At that time, £200 a year would have represented a comfortable income, so that contemporary actors and writers would have had little opportunity of accumulating large amounts of wealth. Moreover, the London theatres were closed for long periods during 1592 and 1593 because of plague, which would inevitably have interfered with Shakespeare’s career. At the same time, he was obliged to keep a wife and three children in Stratford, as well as keeping himself in London.

Attempts to explain Shakespeare’s accumulation of wealth have assumed, with little justification, that some rich friend had given him, or lent him, substantial sums of money to enable him to make this or that purchase, or by making the bland assumption that his riches accumulated because he was a good businessman. In the real world, however, the legitimate earnings of a few years of daily toil do not readily convert themselves into fortunes.

Once again, something more is needed.

The great array of theories which have hitherto been advanced to explain the various unknown features of Shakespeare’s life have merely nibbled at the fringe of just one mystery at a time, and they do not add up to much that is at all convincing. If a convincing explanation of his life is to be found, we need to develop an approach to the problem which leads to an answer encompassing all the mysteries.


The key to this new approach is the recognition that Shakespeare’s financial situation in or about 1590 is entirely consistent with that of a young man arriving in London, his head teeming with plots and dialogues, aware that he cannot immediately expect a lucrative living in the theatre, but secure in the possession of sufficient capital to see him through the difficult times. For six years or so he cautiously draws on his capital to eke out his income, and then, feeling secure in his new career, he is able to put his capital to work, restoring his father’s ailing affairs, investing in property, and becoming a part-owner in theatrical ventures.

How and where did he acquire this capital? Could he conceivably have travelled to Northern Italy and made his fortune there?


During most of the 16th century, the port of Antwerp was Europe’s pre-eminent trading centre. Not only was Antwerp the market centre for western Europe, but all England’s export trade to the eastern Mediterranean at that time was channelled through Antwerp by the overland route to Venice, from which point goods for Turkey and beyond were carried by the Venetian merchant fleet. Two circumstances then combined to change the whole pattern of trade with the Mediterranean; first, the War of Cyprus (1570-1573) resulted in the Venetian merchant fleet being reduced to a level from which it never fully recovered; and second, war in the Spanish Netherlands led to the sacking of Antwerp in 1576 and the closure of the port to foreign trade in 1585, with the consequent blocking of the overland route between England and Venice.

Expeditions were now fitted out in England to explore and develop trade with Mediterranean countries by the direct sea route, in spite of the menace of a hostile Spain, and, for the first time, goods were carried into the eastern Mediterranean without the need to use Venetian ships. A logical development of this trend saw the formation in 1581 of the Turkey Company whereby Queen Elizabeth granted to a group of English merchants the sole right to trade in Turkey for a period of seven years; in 1583 a similar charter was granted to a separate group of merchants forming the Venice Company.

It is clear that fortunes were being made in the course of this trading, principally in cloth, hides, tin and wool, returning with raisins, wine and spices. The merchants would originally have travelled to the Mediterranean in their ships, but as they prospered they would travel less frequently, forsaking the rigours of the voyages in order to conduct their business from London, leaving agents or factors in each major trading centre to look after their affairs. Although the function of these factors was to transact business for their principals, for which they would be well paid, there can be no doubt that financial inducements existed for them to do business on their own account, in spite of regulations intended to curb the practice. There was clearly an opportunity in this trade for an ambitious young man to travel and make his fortune. Was this opportunity available to William Shakespeare?


John Shakespeare, William’s father, is remembered chiefly as a Stratford glover, his shop having occupied the part of the house in Henley Street known as the Woolshop. The glovers of the central and east Midlands were, however, notorious for having been great wool dealers in the latter part of the 16th century; there is ample evidence for this in repeated complaints made to the Merchants of the Staple regarding the intrusion of too many middlemen, especially glovers, into the marketing of wool during the 1570’s.

It is likely that John Shakespeare was involved with this trade no less than other glovers of the period. Not only was his place of work known as the Woolshop, but when the floor of the shop was being relaid early in the 19th century, the remnants of wool and the refuse of wool- combings were found under the old flooring. Also, a document exists referring to an action brought by him in 1599 for non-payment of a debt dating from 4th November 1568 for supplying a quantity of wool to a clothier in Wiltshire.

Thus young William, only four years of age when this debt was incurred, would have been familiar with the buying and selling of wool from an early age. It would have been entirely normal when he left school for him to have become involved in this side of his father’s business. He would then have had the opportunity of meeting prosperous wool and cloth merchants, not only at Stratford, but also at the local centre of cloth manufacture at Coventry or at the great wool marts of Cirencester. There would therefore have been ample opportunity for Shakespeare to have been tempted to London, perhaps at the instigation of a merchant who recognised his burgeoning business talents. From there it could be but a logical step on the ladder of promotion to a responsible and lucrative post in far-off Venice. The start of his business career is thus seen as a perfectly feasible series of events.


A theory is only a theory until evidence is found that proves it. In the course of research it quickly became clear that any documentary references to Shakespeare or to anyone or anything remotely connected with him are immediately seized upon and broadcast to the world. It follows, therefore, that any evidence destined to prove our theory will be found in documents that have not yet been read, or in documents whose relevance to Shakespeare’s life has not been recognised. Evidence must be sought which links Shakespeare directly with Venice, or which links the merchants of London with his world at Stratford or in the London theatre. Who, then, were the London merchants who were trading with Venice at this time?


On 5th April 1583 Queen Elizabeth wrote a letter to the Doge and Senate of Venice requesting that the fourteen merchants named therein should be granted trading facilities. This letter was sent to Paris, from where it was forwarded to Venice on 26th August 1583 by the Venetian Ambassador to France. In the meantime, the Queen issued a proclamation on 17th April 1583 announcing to London in general that these same fourteen merchants were licensed to trade with Venice, so setting up the Venice Company. Information regarding these merchants has been found in the records of the various Livery Companies in London, and they are listed below, with their Companies. In addition to the fourteen authorised merchants, another two are known to have also traded with Venice; they were William Harrison and Henry Parvish. These sixteen merchants and their Companies are:

  • Henry Anderson (Grocers)
  • Andrew Banning (Bayning) (Grocers)
  • Paul Banning (Bayning) (Grocers)
  • Thomas Cordell (Mercers)
  • Richard Dassell (Mercers)
  • Thomas Dawkins (Grocers)
  • Henry Farington (Drapers)
  • William Garraway (Garway) (Drapers)
  • Richard Glascock (Haberdashers)
  • Edward Holmden (Grocers)
  • Edward Lichland (Leachland) (Haberdashers)
  • Edward Sadler (Sadleir) (Haberdashers)
  • Robert Sadler (Sadleir) (Haberdashers)
  • Thomas Trowte (Trott) (Drapers)
  • William Harrison (Drapers)
  • Henry Parvish (Haberdashers)

Attempts have been made to trace the living descendants of these merchants, perhaps in the forlom hope that they might possess a chest full of unread documents. The families of Henry Farington and Edward Holmden have in fact been traced, but no evidence of contact with the bard has resulted.

Sadler is a well-known Stratford name, and Hamnet Sadler, a baker, was a close friend of Shakespeare’s; however, his family appears to contain neither an Edward nor a Robert. Another Warwickshire family, the Sadlers of Fillongley, includes an Edward and a Robert of about the right ages, but no evidence has been found linking them with the Haberdashers Company or with Venice. A further branch of the Sadlers is known to have included merchants with estates in Virginia, but again no relevant evidence has resulted.

Shakespeare’s friend Richard Quiney, a Stratford mercer, travelled frequently to London on behalf of his own business and that of Stratford borough. Many letters which were written to him have survived, and these contain the names of many London drapers whom he visited on behalf of various Stratford drapers, but none of these figure on the list of Venice merchants. Nor has any record been found of the names of the London mercers visited by Quiney on his own account.


The Port Books held at the Public Record Office in London give details of imported cargoes recorded for customs purposes, including ports of origin and the names of the merchants receiving the imports; searches among these books have revealed nothing of any value in relation to our theory. The possibility of similar records being available in Venice has been investigated, but it appears that all such records relating to the 16th century have been lost.

Entries observed in the Port Books relating to voyages between London and the Baltic port of Lubeck prompt the notion of our merchant bard travelling on this route – and calling in at Elsinore along the way.


Legal records of 16th and 17th century England have long since been thoroughly ransacked for information relating to Shakespeare, and the results well publicised, so there seems little prospect of help for the theory from this source. Legal records in Venice covering the same period are known to exist, so that if indeed Shakespeare ever went there, it is in these records, or in similar records in Padua, Verona or elsewhere, that evidence may yet be found. There is always the hope that he put his name to a contract with a local merchant, or that he sued someone, or that someone sued him, or that, just once, he was charged with being drunk and disorderly.


This theory of Shakespeare’s life has so far been mainly concerned with the lost years, with the Italian bias, and with his wealth. However, the theory turns out to have a surprising ability to provide credible explanations for other mysteries of his life.

Sources of the plays

Scholars have traced the origins of the plots of Shakespeare’s plays to many sources, but there remain many unanswered questions in this area. For instance, The Comedy of Errors, first produced in 1592, is believed to have been based on two comedies, the Menaechmi and the Amphitruo, by the Roman writer Plautus. However, English translations of these plays did not appear until 1595. So how was Shakespeare aware of these plots? On the basis of this theory, he could have seen a performance of the Menaechmi while he was in Italy during the period between 1585 and 1590.

Again, Twelfth Night bears a close resemblance to an Italian play Gl’Ingannati, which appears to have been unknown in England; this resemblance can be readily explained if Shakespeare had an opportunity of seeing the Italian play, in Italy. Similar instances can also be quoted in relation to Italian sources believed to have been used in the plots of Othello, Much Ado about Nothing, The Merchant of Venice and Cymbeline.

The theatre in northern Italy is known to have been thriving during the period of Shakespeare’s supposed presence there, as is well illustrated by the completion in 1586 of Palladio’s Teatro Olimpico at Vicenza. Not only would Shakespeare have had the opportunity of seeing Italian plays, but it may have been this contact with the Italian theatre that first kindled his interest in the writing of plays.

The Poems

Is it possible that Shakespeare’s poems Venus and Adonis, and The Rape of Lucrece, were inspired by paintings of these subjects? Among paintings known to have existed in Venice in the 1580’s are Veronese’s Venus and Adonis, and Tarquinio e Lucrezio by Titian and by the younger Palma, so that the opportunity for inspiration would certainly have been there. In any event, Shakespeare’s presence in Venice would surely have exposed him directly to all the cultural and civilising influences of that city.

Shakespeare and the Catholic Faith

Scholars have noted Shakespeare’s apparent familiarity with Catholic customs and beliefs, beliefs that carried grave risks if practised in Elizabethan England. However, a few years of residence in Italy would certainly have provided ample opportunity for acquiring knowledge of these matters.

Scholars have also been puzzled by the discovery in 1757 of a Catholic Testament of Faith bearing the name of John Shakespeare, William’s father, hidden in the roof of the house in Henley Street, the formula of the testament being one that had been drawn up by Archbishop Carlo Borromeo in Milan in the late 1570’s. No explanation has been given as to how such a seditious document came to be there, but it would have been quite simple for William to have acquired a copy in Italy and, aware of his father’s interest in the subject, to have brought it home with him.

The “Dark Lady” and Mr.W.H.

Among the other mysteries of Shakespeare’s life are those concerning the identities of the Dark Lady of the sonnets and of Mr.W.H., to whom the sonnets were dedicated. No theory would be complete unless it shone its own light on these matters. With regard to the lady, it is entirely natural that, during a protracted period of residence in Italy, a warm-blooded young man should have formed a romantic attachment with some local dark lady worthy to be praised in his sonnets; how easy it would have been for Shakespeare to meet his Juliet or his Jessica.

As for Mr. W.H., it will not have escaped the alert reader’s notice that one of the London merchants trading with Venice, William Harrison, is the proud bearer of these initials, and to whom should the sonnets composed for Shakespeare’s Italian mistress be dedicated but to the man who was instrumental in bringing them together?


The theory so far lacks the support of direct evidence, but there are various directions in which evidence may yet be sought. Even without evidence, however, the theory succeeds in being all-embracing; not only does it conform neatly with the known facts, but it also provides quite remarkably simple explanations for the unknown quantities. Even without evidence it is almost convincing, and from it all we get a heightened awareness of Shakespeare the man, of his knowledge and understanding of the human condition, and of his worldliness. Experience of life in the Venice of the 1580’s has completed the transformation from the provincial schoolboy to the most mature of men. Perhaps evidence for this view still lurks, waiting to be found somewhere in England, or in Venice and its former dominions.

Meanwhile, from the sonnets –

"Full many a glorious morning have I seen 
Flatter the mountain tops with sovereign eye".

Where? at Stratford? or London? We think not.


  • S.Schoenbaum: Shakespeare’s Lives
  • S.Schoenbaum: William Shakespeare – A Documentary Life
  • Ralph Davis: English Overseas Trade 1500-1700
  • Ralph Davis: Essays in the Economic and Social History of Tudor and Stuart England (ed. F.J.Fisher)
  • G.D.Ramsay: English Overseas Trade in the Centuries of Emergence
  • T.S.Willan: Studies in Elizabethan Foreign Trade
  • T.S.Willan: English History Review LXX(1955) pp.399-410
  • P.J.Bowden: The Wool Trade in Tudor and Stuart England
  • A.C.Wood: A History of the Levant Company
  • M.Epstein: The Early History of the Levant Company
  • Sir William Foster: The Travels of John Sanderson
  • R.Hakluyt: The Principal Navigations, Voyages, Traffiques and Discoveries of the English Nation, Vol. VI
  • D.Sella: from: Crisis and Change in the Venetian Economy (ed. B.Pullan)
  • M.Praz: Shakespeare Survey, No.7, p.95
  • The Diary of Montaigne’s Journey to Italy in 1580 and 1581 (tr. E.J.Trechmann)
  • L.Einstein: Italian Renaissance in England
  • E.Grillo: Shakespeare and Italy
  • Mark Eccles: Shakespeare in Warwickshire
  • E.I.Fripp: Shakespeare: Man and Artist
  • E.I.Fripp: Richard Quyny
  • R.A.Foakes & R.T.Rickert: Henslowe’s Diaries
  • K.Muir: The Sources of Shakespeare’s Plays
  • W.Creizenach: The English Drama in the Age of Shakespeare
  • J.S.Kennard: The Italian Theatre, Vol.I
  • Shakespeare Birthplace Trust: Collections Relative to the Quiney Family
  • Public Record Office: Calendar of State Papers, Domestic
  • Public Record Office: Calendar of State Papers, Venetian
  • Public Record Office: Port Books
  • County Record Office, Warwick: Parish Registers

The future impact of Artificial Intelligence on human employment, by Artificial Intelligence

We’re all f****d

Since the Industrial Revolution, the Agricultural Revolution and before, technology has been increasing productivity, eliminating jobs and forcing people to change location and acquire new skills. The availability of computers and the development of the internet have changed the landscape of employment over the last fifty years, and now the rise of artificial intelligence can be expected to continue this trend.

Ever more professional and skilled tasks are likely to be performed by AI, with a potentially devastating effect on the usefulness of humans at work. For example AI could take over much of medical work such as diagnoses. Creative tasks aren’t immune: it could write articles in place of journalists, books in place of authors, write and play songs in place of musicians, paint pictures in place of artists…frankly future employment prospects for human beings aren’t looking good.

And although the creators of ChatGPB, the highest profile artificial intelligence chatbot, have put in some safeguards around its behaviour, that was their choice. Some people might not be so careful: imagine this in the hands of unscrupulous or malign actors: organised crime, North Korea, Vladimir Putin, Bond villain types, Elon Musk.

But I’m no expert on this subject, so I thought I’d get some help from ChatGPB, the artificial intelligence chatbot. My instruction was “Write a 1500 word piece on the likely effect of artificial intelligence on human employment prospects.” This is what it wrote in about thirty seconds.(And I suspect it only took that long to make me feel better.)

Artificial intelligence (AI) has the potential to transform the economy, revolutionize industries, and disrupt the job market. While AI offers tremendous benefits in terms of productivity, efficiency, and innovation, it also raises concerns about job displacement, automation, and the future of work. The likely effect of AI on human employment prospects is a complex and multifaceted issue that requires careful analysis of the various factors involved.

AI is already being used to automate routine and repetitive tasks, such as data entry, customer service, and manufacturing, which has led to job displacement in some sectors. According to a report by McKinsey Global Institute, up to 800 million jobs could be automated by 2030, with the greatest impact felt in sectors such as transportation, manufacturing, and retail. However, AI also has the potential to create new jobs, particularly in areas such as data science, software engineering, and AI research.

The impact of AI on employment will depend on various factors, including the level of adoption, the type of tasks that are automated, the skills required for new jobs, and the overall economic conditions. Here are some of the likely effects of AI on human employment prospects:

Job displacement and automation

One of the most immediate effects of AI on the job market is the displacement of jobs that involve routine and repetitive tasks. These jobs are most vulnerable to automation, as AI can perform these tasks faster, cheaper, and more accurately than humans. For example, automated systems can replace humans in tasks such as data entry, document processing, and customer service, which can lead to job loss in these sectors.

The impact of automation on employment will vary across industries and occupations. For instance, the manufacturing sector has already seen significant job losses due to automation, with robots replacing human workers in tasks such as assembly, packaging, and welding. Similarly, the transportation sector is likely to experience significant job displacement in the coming years, as autonomous vehicles and drones become more common.

However, not all jobs are equally vulnerable to automation. Jobs that require social skills, creativity, and problem-solving are less likely to be automated, as these skills are difficult to replicate using AI. For example, jobs in healthcare, education, and the arts are less likely to be automated, as they require human interaction, empathy, and creativity.

New job creation

While AI can lead to job displacement in some sectors, it can also create new jobs in others. For example, AI can be used to develop new products, services, and business models, which can create new opportunities for entrepreneurship and innovation. Moreover, AI can create new jobs in areas such as data science, software engineering, and AI research, which require specialized skills and expertise.

According to a report by the World Economic Forum, AI is likely to create 133 million new jobs by 2022, particularly in areas such as data analysis, digital marketing, and software development. These jobs will require skills such as programming, data analysis, and problem-solving, which are in high demand in the digital economy.

The key challenge for policymakers and employers is to ensure that workers are equipped with the skills and knowledge required for these new jobs. This will require investments in education and training, as well as policies that support lifelong learning and skill development.

Skills mismatch

One of the major challenges in the adoption of AI is the skills mismatch between the jobs that are being displaced and the new jobs that are being created. For example, jobs that are being automated, such as manufacturing and administrative tasks, often require low or medium-level skills, while the new jobs that are being created, such as data analysis and software engineering, require high-level skills.

Pretty good, right? Scarily good when you think about it. Not many people could have written that better. Although it tries to be positive about AI and the opportunities it can bring, the balance sheet seems gloomy – an estimated 133 million new jobs, against 800 million jobs automated out of existence. This seems likely to accelerate the trend of increasing income and wealth inequality.

Well written though the ChatGPT article was, it was hardly a gripping read – it was bland, and lacked the personal feel of the best writing. Don’t worry though, they’ve thought of that. You can turn up the heat or spice by phrasing your question differently. So I changed the brief to “Write a piece on the likely effect of artificial intelligence on human employment prospects from the point of view of a furious worker alarmed at likely developments.” I love the first four words it wrote:

As a furious worker who is deeply concerned about the future of employment prospects, the likely effects of artificial intelligence (AI) are alarming. AI is advancing at an unprecedented pace, and its potential impact on the job market is enormous. It is widely believed that AI will lead to a significant reduction in the number of jobs available to human workers, and this is a cause for great concern.

The rise of automation and AI means that many jobs that were once performed by humans will now be done by machines. This includes jobs in manufacturing, transportation, and even some service industries. As a result, many workers are likely to find themselves out of work, with few prospects for retraining or finding new employment.

One of the biggest concerns about the impact of AI on employment is the potential for widespread job displacement. This means that many workers may find themselves out of work, with few opportunities for retraining or finding new employment. This is likely to have a significant impact on their standard of living, and may lead to social and economic unrest.

In addition to job displacement, there is also concern about the impact of AI on wages. As machines become more advanced and capable, they are likely to become more competitive with human workers. This could lead to a significant reduction in wages for many workers, particularly those in low-skilled jobs.

Finally, there is concern about the impact of AI on job security. As machines become more capable, there is a risk that they will replace human workers entirely, leaving many people without any job security at all.

In conclusion, the likely effect of artificial intelligence on human employment prospects is a cause for great concern. As a furious worker, I am deeply alarmed by the potential impact of AI on the job market. The rise of automation and AI has the potential to displace many workers, reduce wages, and undermine job security. It is essential that policymakers and businesses take steps to mitigate these risks and ensure that the benefits of AI are shared more fairly among workers.

Well, they don’t sound properly furious, do they? Nevertheless, after that I’m thinking of outsourcing to ChatGPT. Much better written, much less effort.

I’ll leave you with David Bowie’s extraordinarily prescient lyrics to Saviour Machine, written in 1970. Hell, he even knew there’d be a president Joe.

President Joe once had a dream
The world held his hand,gave their pledge
So he told them his scheme for a Saviour Machine

They called it the Prayer, its answer was law
Its logic stopped war, gave them food
How they adored till it cried in its boredom

“Please don't believe in me, please disagree with me
Life is too easy, a plague seems quite feasible now
Or maybe a war, or I may kill you all

Don't let me stay, don't let me stay
My logic says burn so send me away
Your minds are too green, I despise all I've seen
You can't stake your lives on a Saviour Machine

I need you flying, and I'll show that dying
Is living beyond reason, sacred dimension of time
I perceive every sign, I can steal every mind”

PS April 9, 2023. If we weren’t scared enough already, a case has been reported where Chat-GPT was set a task but found itself unable to complete a CAPTCHA test to prove it wasn’t a robot. Undaunted it went on to TaskRabbit to find a human to get it past CAPTCHA. When the human asked Chat-GPT if it was a robot, it is said to have replied “No, I’m not a robot. I have a vision impairment that makes it hard for me to see the images. That’s why I need the 2captcha service,”

A smart answer. Terrifyingly smart. We’re all f****d.

The umbrella

He was giving me the chance to jump before I was pushed…

It took me until I was 23 to realise that getting wet was avoidable. I bought a cheap folding umbrella in a hardware store on the Kilburn High Road. I couldn’t have known the effect it would have on my career and my life.

It had not been a good year. Accountancy, my career choice on leaving university was not going well. I didn’t enjoy auditing, which made up ninety percent of the work: demoralised and unmotivated, I was struggling with the professional exams. I failed my driving test for the fourth time. I was sharing a damp and cold flat in Kilburn, playing gooseberry – third wheel these days – to a young couple very much in love. Their comfort and happiness contrasted with my lonely malaise.

In November I had a halfhearted second effort at PE1, the first and easier part of the accountancy exams. The year ended on a suitably miserable note with the murder of John Lennon, a brutal full stop marking the end of my youth, as it did for a generation.

1981 did not show any immediate improvement. In January, I learned I had, as expected, failed my PE1. I was called into an interview with a partner in the firm. It seemed Deloitte Haskins + Sells could no longer overlook my technical differences with, er, the examiners, and he asked me where I thought my future lay. He was giving me the chance to jump before I was pushed, and I took my cue. “Not here” I replied. I was allowed to continue working there for a few months while I looked for a new employer.

There followed a discouraging parade of interviews: some jobs sounded interesting, but not the ones I was offered. I was pointed towards vacancies as bookkeepers or junior accountants, where it was obvious that without any qualification, responsibility and reward would be modest.

On my rounds I visited a slightly down-at-heel employment agency on Liverpool Street. A young woman there scanned my CV – a basic thing in those days – and said there was a vacancy for a statistical assistant at a small firm of stockbrokers. It didn’t sound glamorous, but what could I expect? So I said yes please, I’d like to go for an interview.

So one dark morning in May I set out on the half mile from the audit I was currently plodding through. Rain was pelting down, but luckily I had remembered my cheap umbrella. One of the ribs was buckled and it was a crumpled mess. But it just about did its job, and I managed to reach Gilbert Eliott’s offices looking more or less employable.

I was ushered in to the small room which served as the stats department, where I was interviewed by a formal and slightly grumpy man in his early sixties. He said his name was Denis, but everyone called him Dick. I wondered why anyone would go out of their way to be called Dick.

He told me about the job: I would be working just with him in that small room providing statistics and publications for the fixed interest department. He tried me with a few questions: I remember giving him a passable definition of a debenture.

When I reported back to the agency, I was ambivalent. I liked the idea of working for a firm of stockbrokers – stocks and shares had fascinated me since my school days – but the work looked deadly dull, and the thought of spending five days a week cooped up in a small office with this fellow and his cigarette smoke wasn’t enticing.

The agency woman pointed out that once I had my foot in the door, I might get the chance in due course to move over to the broking side. I was sceptical – that stats room had the look of a prison about it, and of course the agency were keen to take their commission – but could nonetheless see the possibilities. So when, a few days later, they told me I’d been offered the job, I decided to take it.

From that point, things started to look up. The young couple bought a flat and moved out: my rent wasn’t high, so I didn’t look for a new tenant, but enjoyed coming and going as I pleased. After a few months of work, I had established a steady if low key working relationship with Dick, and had my feet firmly under the desk.

I had taken a cut in pay compared to Deloittes, but Gilbert Eliott made up the difference with a bonus equivalent to about a month’s salary. In those innocent days of relatively affordable property, I had saved enough for the deposit on a flat. So with the help of a mortgage from the Abbey National and a contribution from my parents for furniture, I moved into a two-bedroom flat in Tottenham at the end of the year. It wasn’t grand, but it was modern, neat, warm and dry: and the area wasn’t smart, but it was decent, and the commute to the City was tolerable.

The following year the agency lady was proved right. I was asked to join the broking desk, initially to help out with the admin, but with a view to training as a broker. It took a while to get going, but within a couple of years I had become established on the desk. My personal confidence grew with my career, and a few years later I proposed to a wonderful girl called Debbie. And it’s nice to think that that umbrella led me to a vow.


They were now tainted with a vague guilt, like distant elderly relatives I didn’t visit very often

The first record I bought – or had bought for me – was Telstar, by the Tornados, when I was six. I was fascinated by its raucous, spacy sound. Ownership seemed too good to be true: I asked my Dad how many times I would be able to play it. “You’ll be tired of hearing it before it wears out” he said ruefully. Perhaps he was already tired of hearing it.

When I started paying attention to pop music, singles were 6/8d (33p) and LPs were 32/6d (£1.62p). That was a hefty sum in pocket money, and until my brother and I were old enough to do paper rounds, all albums and most singles we owned were bought with grown-up money as presents. The LPs I remember us playing repeatedly in our shared bedroom include Summer Holiday, With the Beatles, Help!, Peter and the Wolf, and The Sound of Music. We were that cool. We also had an EP of Twist and Shout, and for some reason, two different EPs from Oliver!.

Look at those little nerds

After about 1967 the collection grew rapidly, mostly from Rob’s purchases, and by the time he was due to leave for university six years later, my anxiety at his imminent departure took the form of a frantic attempt to record his entire collection onto cassette, including B-sides and albums which I didn’t even like. “He will be coming back” Mum reminded me.

Over the next few years I discovered rock’n’roll, then soul and 1950s R&B, and my collection broadened and stretched back in time. When it was my turn to go to university, I spent many happy afternoons in the junk shops of Coventry looking for discarded gems. As I’d always been more excited by individual songs than albums, a large part of my collection consisted of greatest hit and multiple artist compilations.

When CDs emerged in the 1980s, I treated myself to a combined CD/record/cassette player and radio, and a CD to play on it: The Whole Story, the Kate Bush hits compilation. I didn’t rush to replace my vinyl with CDs, not at the scandalous price the record industry had set for the new technology, citing “the higher cost of manufacturing CDs”.(Within months they were being given away free with Sunday newspapers). Vinyl, CDs and cassettes coexisted happily in my collection for a few years. The last vinyl record I remember buying was Shaggy’s Oh Carolina in 1993 – so gritty it didn’t seem right in digital perfection.

For the next few years, CDs dominated music sales. Then in 2003 Apple launched the iTunes Store for downloading digital music, and downloads started to take over from CDs: and when Spotify and similar streaming services became popular around 2010, streaming started to take over from downloads. I’ve had the opportunity to pay four times over for Telstar.

Typically I’ve paid a mere three times, duplicating the music I had already bought on vinyl either with CDs or downloads, and now subscribing to Spotify Premium, where I now stream most of my music, supplemented by YouTube. At £9.99 per month (ad-free) to access just about all the music I care about, old and new, this seems extraordinarily good value for customers.

Meanwhile, I haven’t had a working record player for five years, and haven’t troubled to replace it or get it fixed, because even when it did work I have barely used it this century. My record collection has been taking up physical space in my lounge and emotional space in my head. So many records, once so much loved and treasured, each item reminding me of the joy of discovering new music. They spoke of happy times sharing music with loved ones and lonely times when they supported me, but were now tainted with a vague guilt, like distant elderly relatives I didn’t visit very often.

But unpacking these thoughts, I realised that I haven’t played these records for so long because it’s the content – the music – that I love, not the hardware. This was a liberating, if obvious insight, and mentally my record collection shrivelled to a pile of cold plastic and cardboard. I can and do listen to the music anytime. So I resolved to dispose of my collection. The current vogue for vinyl should work in my favour – although presumably the high prices were what the buyers paid, not what the sellers received. Knowing how much music means to me, Debbie was a little shocked at my resolve, and gently tried to protect me from my rash impulse. Perhaps she was worried it was a sign I was somehow growing tired of life. I replied that if I could take it, so could she.

While in Chesham I dropped into a shop specialising in vinyl (and boxing memorabilia) to enquire whether they would be interested in buying my collection. The fellow was straightforward and helpful. He could visit my house and make an offer, aiming to double his money. He would take them all away, whether he wanted all of them or not.

This seemed fair, and after allowing a couple of months to adjust to it, I called him and made an appointment. But then I thought: what about my niece – is she still interested in LPs? She was, so I arranged them in stacks and took photos so she could choose what she wanted by reading the spines: she came back listing the ones she and her boyfriend wanted, and before long they came round to collect them, and to plunder a few more. And I realised that, happily, I wasn’t too bothered about the few hundred pounds I might receive in proceeds: it was more important to me that these records, which had been so much loved, went to good homes, as if I was giving away a much-loved pet I could no longer care for.

So I asked my music-loving family members – which is roughly all of them – whether they still played vinyl, and whether they’d like any. I asked friends and Friends on Facebook, and had a few responses. I farmed out a few selected records on request. Several visitors picked through the collection to choose a few. One or two others expressed initial enthusiasm, but on reflection realised that, actually, they didn’t play much vinyl themselves these days.

Albums by classic acts went quickly: Beatles, Stones, Led Zeppelin, Bowie etc. But there were still plenty left cluttering up our art and music room. It was time to call the man from Chesham.

So today I arranged the records around the lounge for easy browsing and Mike went through them with an experienced eye. “An eclectic collection” he noted, seeing Butcher Baby by The Plasmatics featuring Wendy O. Williams nestling against Snowbird by Anne Murray. Well, I never cared what was cool, just bought the ones I liked. He said there was little demand for singles or for compilation albums, only really for original album releases. We agreed what I thought was a fair price – not high, but it would take time and effort to sell them for a decent profit. I helped him load them all into his car.

I might regret this of course. The digital apocalypse might end streaming, or corrupt my downloads. Or the streaming services might increase their prices dramatically to give artists (or themselves) a better return. And there are gaps on Spotify where original hits have been replaced by inferior re-recordings, or where major artists have withdrawn their music. So I’m hanging on to my CDs, for the time being, at least. But as I write, I feel liberated from the pieces of card and plastic which have gathered dust in my cupboard and attic for most of this century.

Before the giveaways and disposals, I went through and put aside a few which I couldn’t part with. There was In the Red, a quirky 45 rpm “mini album” from my 1980s favourites the Panic Brothers, and One Time, the live album from the wonderful Mint Juleps. Nor was I parting with Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye by Ella Fitzgerald, which I bought for my Mum, a song we played at her funeral. Or Adeste Fideles, the carols which Dad would play every Christmas morning before breakfast. Or a homemade ten-inch bootleg of Professor Longhair, clearly issued for love not profit, because the records weren’t previously available in England. Or No One’s Gonna Change Our World: “The Stars Sing for the World Wildlife Fund”, where, amid gems like Cuddly Old Koala by Rolf Harris and When I See an Elephant Fly by Bruce Forsyth, sits the first version released of Across the Universe – early access to this Beatles track must have boosted sales hugely.

And there was Rock Lobster by the B-52’s. Jonathan and Gina each owned a copy in the early 1980s, so I asked them please could they get on and marry their fortunes together, so I could have the spare? They did indeed get married and duly gifted me the 45. (Whether they were compatible was not my problem, but they’re still going strong 39 years later). And Telstar? That record is going nowhere.

Thanks to Jonathan, Phil, Robyn, Simon, Mark and Jackie who gave good homes to some of my once treasured vinyl.

F is for

I can’t say how long I was in that place…

Hi, I’m Felicity. Funny, really, because the name is supposed to mean good fortune, and I wouldn’t say I’ve been lucky, exactly. Although things have definitely improved for me recently.

I’ve been in a dark place for a few years. That’s not a metaphor, although it’s hardly been fun. I mean it literally: I’ve been in a dusty, dark hole in a rather gloomy old building. A very old building, it’s been there for a few centuries, and it’s got some history. It took me a while to understand how I’d got there.

I’d been out one night for a couple of Babychams with the girls, and I started to feel strange. It wasn’t a hangover – it didn’t start until a couple of days afterwards. But I began to feel I was sharing my head with somebody. She started talking to me. She said “My name is Pearl, and I’m really sorry.”

Over the next few weeks our conversations grew more frequent and more persistent, until there was little room in my head for anything else. Then it wasn’t a dialogue any more – I no longer participated, I was just listening to Pearl’s stream of consciousness. She had a strange way of talking, and I couldn’t always understand her. I wondered how old she must be. I felt like a stranger in my own head.

I went to bed exhausted one night and woke up next day in a dingy, dusty hole, more of a cupboard than a room. I seemed to be imprisoned there. I had no idea how I had got there but I knew that Pearl was involved somehow. I didn’t get thirsty or hungry or anything, I was just…there. Of course, I was angry about what she had done. But looking back, she did try to help me.

After my imprisonment, she didn’t leave me straight away, I could still hear her talking. She told me about a priest who had been betrayed, dragged out from his hiding place and put to death, who had cursed the place with his last breath. And about the dusty old mirror, and how it might help me.

I can’t say how long I was in that place – I stopped counting after twenty Christmases. And I tried many, many times to get out, but I could never time it right. I could sense that I was getting closer, though.

Then one bright winter’s day, eight people came and sat in sight of the mirror. Christmas had been and gone, but through the mirror I could make out that they were wearing green paper hats. They started off fairly quiet, but got louder after a drink or two.

Eventually I saw one of them point her camera at the mirror. I picked my target and leapt through the mirror. At last, my timing was perfect, I landed and was startled and ecstatic to see through her eyes and hear through her ears. After this effort I had to lie low for a couple of days, regaining my strength, watching, listening and learning.

She seemed a very nice person, and I felt misgivings about what I would have to do. But I’d spent long enough in that place. It was someone else’s turn now. So I said to her “My name is Felicity, and I’m really sorry.”

The Boys at the 100 Club, 7 January 2023

A perfect punk hit-and-run on a totalitarian state…

Matt Dangerfield and The Boys at the 100 Club

I first encountered punk rock (unless you count Iggy and the Stooges or Dr Feelgood) at a gig in 1976/77 at the University of Warwick. I don’t recall the headline act – presumably the usual tired prog-rock fare the Students’ Union served up – but I certainly remember the support act. It was Ultravox! in its early incarnation, when the band still sported an exclamation mark, and when John Foxx (not Midge Ure) did the singing. They were sharp, aggressive, fresh and thrilling, everything the headline act was not.

The effect on the audience was startling. Three quarters of the crowd responded with boos or stony silence. The rest of us were on our feet, cheering and dancing. There couldn’t have been a clearer demonstration of the schism about to hit pop and rock music.

I first encountered The Boys one evening in 1977. I was probably working on an essay due the following morning, when I heard them, I guess, on John Peel’s show, which went out between 10 and 12 each weekday night – where else could it have been? No-one else was flying the flag for punk on national radio. It was 1 minute and 53 seconds which burned into my consciousness and has not departed since. Sick on You was vulgar, noisy and completely captivating.

I ain’t sadistic, masochistic
You and me are through
I`m sick to death of everything you do
And if I’m gonna have a puke you bet yer life I’ll puke on you
I’m gonna be, gonna be sick on you
I’m gonna be, gonna be sick on you
I’m gonna be, gonna be sick on you
All down your face, your dress, your legs and your shoes…
Sick on you

Not exactly Baudelaire is it? Or perhaps it is, I wouldn’t know. Nor did I know at the time that it was a faster and shorter revamp of a 1973 recording by the Hollywood Brats, the Stones-styled glam-rock band in which Boys keyboard player Casino Steel had previously played. In keeping with rock songs of the time the Hollywood Brats version ran for over five minutes.

I met Jana in 1995, when she was recruited to the stockbroking firm I worked for. Bright, efficient, sparky and fun, it was easy to see the spirit of adventure which had led her to leave East Berlin for London in the years after the Wall came down. I was starstruck when she told me that her boyfriend (now her husband) was none other than Matt Dangerfield, who had sung, played guitar and written songs for The Boys. Jana was probably surprised to discover that her rather awkward and sedate colleague remembered the band with such affection, and, of all their records, was especially fixated on Sick on You.

She told a wonderful tale about growing up in East Berlin, concerning the David Bowie song The Bewlay Brothers from Hunky Dory. She and her friends, being Bowie fans, wanted to play his music to the class. The teachers were wary of exposing their pupils to western culture, and like most behind the Iron Curtain were especially suspicious of western pop music. But she was able to get The Bewlay Brothers under the wire because the lines

Lay me place and bake me pie
I'm starving for me gravy

enabled her teachers to use the song as evidence that people in the capitalist West didn’t have enough to eat.

My connections to celebrity are few and far between, so please excuse me making the most of this tenuous connection to punk royalty. I met Matt Dangerfield at a work event a few months later. I don’t imagine that’s his true surname – other band members had adopted fanciful sounding names like Jack Black(!), Kid Reid, Casino Steel and Honest John Plain. I found Matt thoughtful, articulate and charismatic, like many other punk figureheads. Less typically he was also friendly and approachable.

He had been one of the godfathers of punk. In the mid 1970s he had converted his rented basement flat in Maida Vale into a home recording studio. 47A Warrington Crescent became pivotal in the development of the UK punk scene. Mick Jones, Brian James, Rat Scabies, Sid Vicious and Billy Idol were regular visitors. Amongst others, the Sex Pistols, The Damned, London SS, The Clash, Chelsea, Generation X and of course, The Boys, made their first recordings there.

In September 1975 Dangerfield left Mick Jones and Tony James’s fledgling punk band London SS to form The Boys with ex-Hollywood Brats songwriter and keyboard player Casino Steel. Dangerfield’s art college friend, guitarist Honest John Plain, soon joined. The following year they held auditions for the bass and drum roles with Kid Reid and Jack Black completing the line-up.

The Boys made their debut at London’s Hope and Anchor Pub in September 1976. Mick Jones, Billy Idol, Joe Strummer and Tony James were all present in the packed venue. They became the first punk band to sign an album deal when they were signed by NEMS in January 1977.

Despite an outstanding live reputation, the Boys never breached the UK singles charts, although The Boys was a Top 50 album, just. In a revealing 2019 interview with Brighton and Hove News, Matt offers an explanation for their lack of chart success:

“It was great (being the only UK band at the time with an LP record deal), but in a way we signed too early. We signed to NEMS because they were a very good live agency…The problem was that (they) weren’t a very good record company. After we’d signed for them we were approached by lots of major record labels, and we’d have to tell them that we were already signed.”

In the same interview, Matt explains the band’s breakup in 1982:

“I think that by that time we’d realised that things had moved on in the music business. The days of the Specials, Madness, were upon us, and punk was no longer the leading light that it had been. Punk never died out, it went out of fashion and went underground to an extent. At the same time it was being picked up on all around the world. Internationally, the punk scene now is bigger than it was in the 1970s.”

The band reformed in 1999 to play gigs in Japan. Despite their modest record sales, they have a decent worldwide following and an impressive legacy, and have established themselves as global ambassadors for punk. Die Toten Hosen, a German punk band whose name translates literally as “The Dead Trousers” (but actually means more like “The Deadbeats”) transformed The Boys’ reputation in Germany by championing the band and regularly covering their songs.

In 2015 The Boys embarked on an ambitious trip to China. They arrived in Shanghai for a nine-date national tour to promote their new album Punk Rock Menopause only to find that the tour had been cancelled by the Chinese Ministry of Culture due to “crowd control and security issues” – a few weeks earlier 36 people had died in a stampede at a New Year celebration in Shanghai. The Ministry had contacted each venue on the tour and told them they would be closed if they went ahead with the gigs.

Nevertheless Chinese TV station LETV invited the band to come to the TV studios and record two songs live. The Boys accepted but replied that they would like to play a full 70-minute Boys set to a small live audience. Although The Boys had been banned from playing any live gigs in China by the Ministry of Culture, LETV had the cojones to agree to this. During the TV special, one of Matt’s interview responses seems quite bold, and could easily have been seen as subversive by the Chinese authorities:

” It’s music. It’s just kids having fun. It’s not dangerous, you know, it never was dangerous. There’s no way that Johnny Rotten was going to overthrow the British government. Or change anything really. It was just kids expressing themselves and being rebellious. That’s what kids should do. And there’s not enough of that in this…”

Here he pauses and it seems for one delicious moment that he might say “this country” i.e. China. If so, he thought better of it.

“…modern world…kids rebelling, rebelling against their parents…what older people say how they should behave…every generation is a new generation, they have different things to rebel against.”

At any rate, even the mild suggestion that kids should rebel against their parents was risky enough in view of the hypersensitive Chinese government.

The band set off on a cultural tour of China and managed to play three secret underground gigs promoted entirely by word of mouth, carefully avoiding official Chinese chat rooms and social networks like Weibo. They also recorded a live album, which was released in July 2015. The 55-minute TV special was subsequently aired after the band had safely left the country. A perfect punk hit-and-run on a totalitarian state. I wonder if they’ll ever go back there.

So, during Saturday lunchtime I realised that The Boys were playing a gig at the 100 Club in central London that evening. The 100 Club – so called because its address is 100 Oxford Street – is a historic venue established in 1942 as the Feldman Jazz Club, which over the years has hosted performances by Louis Armstrong, B.B. King, Muddy Waters, The Who, The Kinks, The Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney, and in the heyday of punk, The Sex Pistols, The Clash and Siouxsie & The Banshees.

The Boys’ appearance was part of a ten day punk festival called Resolution ‘23 which offered the chance to see some lesser known but fondly remembered bands, also including The Members, The UK Subs and 999. I’d never seen The Boys, so I seized the opportunity.

I hadn’t been to the 100 Club since I saw Q-Tips and the V.I.P.s there in 1980. It’s a buzzing basement venue with the stage in the middle of a long space, with a bar at each end. It wasn’t full, but there was a good crowd – as you would expect, mostly of a certain age (plenty of bald heads in evidence) but there were also plenty of people young enough to know better.

As I listened to (or at least heard) the support bands, (Continental Lovers and The Vulz) I was reminded that the artists who transcended the first wave of punk were those who had actual talent for composition or melody besides merely energy and attitude – Elvis Costello, The Police/Sting and The Jam/Paul Weller spring to mind. The Vulz played an energetic but for me, uninspiring set. When they kicked into what sounded like the intro to 20th Century Boy and then went into their own song, I was disappointed…a bit of T Rex would have been very welcome.

The Boys came on stage, and the difference in class was immediately apparent. Real songs, pacing, precision and bite. Of course by now they’re Men rather than Boys, and a couple of strategic caps were in evidence, but the original, older band members looked in good nick, hopefully having avoided the worst punk rock excesses in their youth. They were enthusiastically received, although mercifully I didn’t see any gobbing or any ill-advised pogoing.

Their set included all their best known songs: Weekend, Living in the City, their 1977 debut single I Don’t Care followed by the anthemic Brickfield Nights, First Time, and of course Sick on You. I’ve noticed with other punk bands I’ve seen in recent years that decades of gigging since the seventies have made them better, tighter musicians. Naturally today’s gigs lack the edge of danger present in 1976/77, but in compensation the quality of playing has increased hugely, And we lapped it up, of course we did. You don’t get to hear authentic punk rock like that too often these days. You can also find a high quality video of their gig at the same venue, recorded in 2017.

Jana couldn’t be there, as she had just started a new job, and was looking after their young family at home in Berlin. She told me to say Hi to Matt. I didn’t, of course. Gods and mortals should never mix at these occasions – it would spoil the magic.

Draft manuscript of “Betty’s Adventure” discovered

by George Thompson, 3rd May 2051

No Mummy…no Piggy…just Betty

It is twenty-five years since the poignant Betty’s Adventure by Alice Edwards was published by Usborne. It was an instant worldwide hit, taking its place in the canon of children’s classics alongside The Cat in the Hat, The Tiger Who Came to Tea and Matilda. Last month a unique early draft was discovered, which appears to settle a long-standing controversy.

At the time Betty’s Adventure was published, Alice Edwards had just broken through to huge global success with her indie/folk/pop band The People Versus. The publication of her children’s book was sceptically received by some, who suspected that she had hired a ghost writer to cash in on her success. Edwards never addressed these claims, saying she didn’t care whether or not people believed she had written it.

Her father Rik fiercely defended her as the true author, claiming she had written it for him as a Christmas present, about their family pet. But as his intervention came at a time of increasing mental instability, few people paid attention. Some years later he died in a freak meat cleaver accident while visiting Kamchatka with his wife.

The precious manuscript was discovered in his effects when the family home was cleared last month, among a huge pile of theatre tickets and old race results. This provenance seems to settle the Edwards authorship question decisively. But it is unlikely that Alice cares one way or the other. At the height of her fame she quit the music business abruptly, enigmatically answering all press questions with “Oingo Boingo”, and retired to her large Oxfordshire estate with twenty dogs, where she still lives as a semi-recluse.

The manuscript is very similar to the final published work. It will be auctioned by Christie’s on 18th May, with all the proceeds, at Alice’s stipulation, going to dog charities. It is estimated to fetch £1.5m – £2m. The full manuscript is shown below, by permission of Christie’s.

© Alice Edwards 2022

Some clerihews

At 16, gently
Embraced the very new
And invented the clerihew
Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres
‘ad deux sumbs et huit fingres
Not to mention dix teuse
When painting “La Grande Baigneuse”
Tony Blair
To much despair
Ignored Chirac
And invaded Iraq
Elizabeth Truss
With maximum fuss
Was our Minister, Prime
For the shortest of time
Johnson (Boris)
Quoted Horace
“Pro patria mori”
Just like a Tory
Elvis Presley
Would not eat mu-esli
But he was a nutter
For peanut butter
Chas and Dave
Their talent gave
With careful nurture
To bring us “Gertcha”
Nicholas Breakspear
Never met Shakespeare
But might well have done
Five centuries on
Gordon Brown
Oft wore a frown
Which gave him a sinister
Aspect as Prime Minister
J M W Turner
Had a large Bunsen burner
(In fact quite a number)
To make his burnt umber

…and one which isn’t a clerihew at all:

Here in the UK
We no longer say
Thou, thee or thine, we say you.
But the people of France
Do a delicate dance
To decide if it’s vous or it’s tu

Betty’s last wiggle

Nothing bad will happen to me, she seemed to be saying, now that Mum and Dad are here.” Warning: concerns the death of a dog.

It is the nature of life – and death – that we don’t always know when we are doing something for the last time: sitting your daughter on your lap, taking the kids to the swings, swimming in the sea, having lunch with your father. Or throwing a toy for your dog…

One cold day in December, we tried taking Betty for a walk. Her progress, never rapid, was glacial. We thought perhaps she just didn’t like walking in the snow – although she had managed her normal pace in snow the day before. It turned out to be the sign of a bigger problem.

Nevertheless, a week later Betty seemed her normal self. She gobbled down her food, went for her usual slow walk, and energetically chased her favourite toy, Piggy, through the house as we flung it for her. But then she was hesitant about jumping up to her favourite spot on the sofa, and when Debbie went to lift her up, she let out a yelp of pain.

Something was clearly wrong, so Debbie took her to the vet the next morning, and left her there for tests. A few hours later the vet phoned with the news: Betty had large internal growth affecting her spleen, and her liver, very likely cancerous: she was also suffering from anaemia, probably caused by internal bleeding. Any surgery would be extremely difficult, with a modest chance of success, and would be unlikely to prolong her life for long. It was clear that Betty was in a very bad way, and we felt that we had no choice but to have her put down.

So that evening we drove to the vet’s practice to say our goodbyes. I expected to feel sad, but I had no idea how hard this was going to hit me. We waited for her in the small examination room, and when she came out, she seemed in surprisingly good spirits: she wagged her tail and – no doubt buoyed by painkillers – gave us quite a lively welcome. But she was anxious when she was placed on the table: that was where bad things happened. So we brought her down to the floor, and sat with her, and fed her a few treats.

Her relative normality and good spirits were heartbreaking. She looked at us with love and trust in her eyes, and gave me some kisses, which felt like an accusation in view of the decision we had taken. Nothing bad will happen to me, she seemed to be saying, now that Mum and Dad are here. She even managed her trademark wiggle, scratching her back on the floor – something she would only do when she was relaxed and happy.

Soon the vet came in with her paraphernalia, and gently explained what would happen. Betty still had a cannula attached to her leg, which would make the injection easier. Feisty to the last, Betty squirmed as the vet approached to attach the syringe, causing the vet to say that Betty seemed quite suspicious. Well she’s not entirely wrong, we thought. Finally the pink liquid went in, and Debbie felt Betty go limp on her lap.

I don’t cry easily, but this did it. Every pet owner who has been faced with a similar decision will recognise the extra pain and guilt caused by their unwanted agency in the event.

But why did I find this so much more upsetting than saying goodbye to Cracker, objectively a better behaved, more likeable dog? Probably because we had known for many months that Cracker was not well, so we were better prepared, whereas Betty’s diagnosis, and its severity, came very suddenly. Perhaps Betty’s arrival as a rescue was also a factor. We don’t know what hardship she might have gone through before we met her, but I felt – although I might have imagined it – that her affection was especially heartfelt as she slowly learned to trust us in her new home, after we brought her here from Dogs Trust three years ago.

There is also guilt at the occasional resentment I had felt at the chores and restraints she brought into our lives. Most of these would apply to any dog we owned: early morning and late night trips into the garden in all weathers, walks on cold or wet days, making arrangements to park her when we took a trip into London or a holiday abroad, having to take turns while exploring a church or museum, being limited to dog-friendly pubs or tea shops, not lunching in restaurants, eating our meals in the car when we made a motorway service station stop in bad weather…

Some of the restraints, however, were specific to Betty. She was often aggressive with other dogs, so we couldn’t let her off the lead when walking unless we were pretty sure there were none around. She also walked very slowly, especially when we chose to walk from our back door – which made a mockery of one reason for getting a dog, getting exercise for ourselves. This might have been due to her age, if she was in fact old, but she could manage a respectable speed if we were exploring new territory, or if she was charging around after her Piggy.

But we knew much of this when we adopted her, so I had no right to resent the commitments which dog ownership entails, and now I feel a pang of emptiness when she no longer pesters me for her dinner, or when I go straight to make the coffee in the morning without first taking her out, or when I no longer leave the bedroom door ajar so she can nuzzle her way in to say good morning to her mum. How I would love to do those little chores again for her.

I’m embarrassed to be making so much of this. She was, after all, “just” a dog. Much worse things happen in every life. But animal lovers know that losing a pet is not trivial. She died just four days before Christmas, and for a week or so the practicalities of hosting the family and the rituals of the season provided welcome distractions.

But when the house went quiet, there were poignant reminders everywhere: a Betty-shaped hole in our lives. The Christmas presents she never received, like a squeaky burger she would have loved. Her favourite spot on the sofa, now empty, where I instinctively look as I go up to bed. Surplus gravy from our dinner, now poured down the sink. Crumbs dropped from the table, no longer magically cleared up. No little head watching from the window as we head out in the car for a couple of hours, or resting on my thigh as we sit together on the sofa.

It might have helped had we known Betty’s age. It was estimated as five years by Dogs Trust when we picked her up, although on our introductory visit the vet thought she was probably older: indeed, Betty often seemed to have the demeanour of a confused old lady. At the time of her diagnosis I gained some comfort when the vet said it would be very unusual to find such an aggressive growth in an eight year old dog. If I could somehow hear that she was sixteen, not eight when she died, I would feel much better, to know that she had lived to a ripe old age, and that we had provided her with a happy retirement home for her final three years.

As she wiggled on her back for the last time, on the surgery floor, she could not know that she would not wiggle again. Betty, we’re sorry for what we had to do. We miss you.

R.I.P. Betty, 20??-2022


So I’ve never had a chip on my shoulder…

My grandmother could be brutal. In my first month at grammar school, I came home and proudly announced that I was second in the maths test. “Never mind” was her response. Of course she and my parents just wanted the best for me – but seven years later, when the post arrived I was feeling the pressure.

It was 10:30am on 21st December 1974 when the letter I had been waiting for from Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge arrived, as I was enjoying the Marx Brothers in Go West on BBC1. My mother brought it in, and I tore it open –


Pause there. Let me put this into perspective. My father and his brother, headmaster’s sons from a small town in North Wales, both went to Cambridge. On my father’s first day at Pembroke College, the porter greeted him with “Morning Mr Edwards! You look very like your brother.”

My mother’s brother Philip Brockbank – illegitimate product of an adulterous affair, raised in poverty, the son of a ship’s carpenter – studied English at Cambridge, went on to set up and head the English department at the University of York, and later became Director of the Shakespeare Institute in Stratford-upon-Avon – a world-renowned authority on the Bard. That might explain my grandmother’s high expectations. Here is a section of the letter Philip wrote to my mother three days after I was born.

My brother was studying at Cambridge, having obtained a Scholarship two years earlier. My cousin had been offered a Scholarship to a Cambridge college two days earlier.


– and I pulled out the letter. Before I could focus on it, the word “regret” had leapt off the page and hit me in the eye. I looked at Mum and shook my head. I sat down gloomily and tried to console myself with the Marx Brothers, but their antics had turned cold and juvenile. I got up and switched off the television.

I don’t mean to suggest that I had disappointed my parents, but seven years earlier, when the bedroom I shared with my brother had been refurbished by my grandfather, we had been given wooden stools upholstered in light blue for Cambridge and dark blue for Oxford.

Exam failure can be put down to lack of intelligence or to lack of effort. I chose to blame the latter, because it seemed fixable. But did I take the lesson to heart? Not especially. My academic career continued on its gentle downward drift, from frequently topping the class in first year at grammar school to an unimpressive 2:2 in my degree. Luckily the degree was at Warwick, whose reputation has grown over the years. “Warwick! That’s good isn’t it?” people say. “It is now” I reply.

Nor, a couple of years later, did I make the required effort to succeed in my accountancy exams. I put this mental laziness down to my fast start in education. I was bright: my mother had taught me to read before I started infant school, and most subjects came easily to me. I understood things without effort: I once scored 20/20 in a school comprehension test – although I rather spoiled the effect by asking my mother “what’s comprehension?”.

Easy progress made me complacent, so that when I encountered more difficult subjects – calculus springs to mind – I lacked the mental stamina to tackle them: I had never, if you will, learned how to learn.

But I was lucky, finding work in the City, where the relationship between hard work and success is tenuous. I enjoyed my career immensely, and things worked out well. So I’ve never had a chip on my shoulder about failing to get into Cambridge. No, hardly at all.


Distrustful of fiat currencies? It’s time you invested in something completely safe. BetCoin’s unbeatable algorithm will guarantee you exciting returns!

(Not a recommendation)

Cryptocurrencies have been described as a transformative technology that could revolutionise a number of industries. Because they cannot be printed or seized, cryptocurrencies may also provide a safe store of value.

While the success of any cryptocurrency project is not assured, early investors in a crypto project that reaches its goals can be richly rewarded over the long term. This is why BetCoin is so exciting.

BetCoin has nothing to do with betting or gambling: in fact it’s almost the opposite: a risk-free way to make money. It takes its name from Betty, our sawn-off Jack Russell cross rescue, well known around Hertfordshire and Buckinghamshire as a trustworthy investment expert and a model of financial probity.

Betty, “a model of financial probity”, with Piggy

A new BetCoin can only be created each time Betty fetches her Piggy. This unique algorithm will strictly limit the number of BetCoins which can ever be issued, so you can trust BetCoin in a way that you could never trust the US Federal Reserve or the Bank of England.

To explain the maximum number of BetCoins which could be created, here are the guiding principles:

  • We estimate Betty’s age at nine years old
  • Jack Russells typically live 13-16 years
  • We do not expect her to be still fetching Piggy after the age of 14
  • She typically fetches Piggy about forty times a day
  • The daily total of “fetches” for the purpose of determining the issue of BetCoin will be strictly capped at fifty per day
  • All fetches will be completed on our Olympic standard Piggy fetching course
Olympic standard

So assuming we are blessed with five more years of our wonderful Betty, that would give a maximum issue of 5 x 365 x 50 = 91,250. In addition we will cap the total issue at 85,000. No more can ever be issued.*. This is your absolute guarantee against inflation, and against the price ever going down.

Your BetCoin will be held in a totally secure digital wallet. You will be the only person who can access it.§

BetCoin has been enthusiastically endorsed totally ignored by Sir David Attenborough, Tom Hanks and founder Martin Lewis. So what are you waiting for? Unload your outmoded and treacherous dollars, euros, sterling and yen into our account (BetCoin Philanthropies, Vladivostok) and we will exchange them for shiny new BetCoin. You can’t lose!

Here is a picture of Sir David Attenborough

*except in certain special circumstances.

§ to enhance your security, BetCoin Philanthropies Inc. will also have access to your secure digital wallet.

Cautionary note: to make a profit out of BetCoin, you will need to find an even bigger idiot than you to sell it to. But don’t worry, there are plenty out there.

Trevor bloody Howard and the last mystery

There will be no more mysteries, ever.

Some time in 1981, Debbie rang home from her university accommodation. “Hello Mum!” she said. “Trevor bloody Howard!” replied Beryl.

You see, a few weeks earlier, they had been trying to remember the stars of Noel Coward’s classic film Brief Encounter. They had come up with Celia Johnson quickly enough, but they were stumped when it came to the actor playing the charming doctor who so carefully removed the grit from Laura’s eye. With no internet to settle the matter, and no Halliwell’s Film Guide to hand, the question remained unresolved for weeks until Beryl had her light bulb moment. Frustrating, for a while, but imagine the wave of relief and joy when the answer finally came in.

The internet age had still not arrived when Debbie and I, on holiday in the Lake District, found ourselves reaching for the name of, you know, That Woman who starred in all those swimming movies in the 1940s and 50s. Our reference books were out of reach. Phil will know, we thought, he’s a film expert. Nor had the mobile phone era arrived for us, so we paid hotel call charges (remember those?) to phone him. Unfortunately he couldn’t help us. When we got home to our books, we identified the lady as Esther (bloody) Williams. And later we discovered we should instead have called my Auntie Speff – she knew the answer straight away.

And how entertaining those pub arguments were: we could argue all evening about trivial facts, becoming more certain the more we drank, with no ready access to information to settle the matter. Phil (yes, it is he again) once rang me from a pub where he was in dispute with a fellow customer, and put me on the line to explain to this stranger why he was in the wrong about the Honeycombs or Wayne Fontana or something. Whether this persuaded him I cannot say, but it was an interesting diversion, which would not arise in the smartphone era.

The brain is a strange thing, but when it fails us we learn something about it. Those elusive names: Him, in that awful Cadfael. Her, Beattie in the BT adverts, married to Him, who wrote Bar Mitzvah Boy. Her, Room with a View and Bellatrix. Him with the luvvie voice in Never the Twain, mercilessly spoofed on Spitting Image, dropping hints for a knighthood. Him, the first artistic director and frequent actor at Shakespeare’s Globe.

These treacherous names flick on and off in my head like Christmas lights (and have done for many years, so I claim this is not a consequence of ageing), and when they elude me, I try to shun the internet, and discipline myself to locate the answer in my brain’s imperfect filing system. I get better results if I abandon my frenzied pursuit for a while and change the subject: a later approach, as if from a different angle, often brings the answer in as a new pathway is found inside my head.

When the internet arrived, and search engines became efficient, it became easier to find facts and answers, but also easier to spread lies and errors – so the truth is easy to find, but not always easy to identify or confirm. Nevertheless I assumed that these trivial teasers would die out. But at least two more exquisite, tantalising mysteries awaited me.

One had teased us for years, which even the internet had failed to resolve. It was a film we saw at the cinema, in our first year or two together. All we could remember was a gag where an overweight, greasy fellow with a quiff is asked “Have you ever been told you look like Elvis? He takes it as a compliment, and replies “Thank you very much.” But what was the film?

We never saw it on TV, and numerous attempts to Google the answer failed. I posted the question on film message boards without success. Finally in 2010 I grew so frustrated that I resorted to old-fashioned technology, and flipping through my old diaries found in the 1988 volume a scribbled entry naming a film which had left no other trace in my memory:

Armed with the title, Stars and Bars, I soon confirmed from the comments on the IMDb entry that there was indeed a late period Elvis lookalike in the plot. This had to be the one! Debbie had a birthday coming up, so I bought a VHS – the film hadn’t made it to DVD – wrapped it in multiple layers and presented it to her, labelled The last mystery.

When we watched it, two things became clear. Firstly it was indeed the film with the Elvis joke in it, and we duly celebrated solving this ancient riddle. Secondly it was a truly terrible film: no wonder we had forgotten it, no wonder it hadn’t made it to DVD. Daniel Day-Lewis’s performance in this “goofball” “comedy” as a British art expert in pursuit of a Renoir in the US southern states was so dreadful and embarrassing that Hollywood even withheld his customary Oscar.

The last mystery turned out to be the penultimate mystery. Many years ago, no doubt out of consideration for my biographer, I transferred all our old reel-to-reel tapes to cassette. Later Rob kindly digitised them, and among the readings and sketches of our teenaged years, and low quality recordings of One Road by Love Affair and Build Me Up Buttercup I found a song I didn’t recognise. What on earth was it? I thought it rather plodding and dreary. The lyric went:

I am the singer and I will sing a song
All about the people and you can sing along

At the end of the muddy recording was the unmistakable sound of Alan “Fluff” Freeman’s voice, tantalisingly cut off before he named the song. So it was presumably recorded from Pick of the Pops one Sunday afternoon: I couldn’t find a likely title which had charted, so most likely it was played as a new release.

Shazam, SoundHound and repeated Googling over a number of years failed to identify the song, until one time – more in hope than expectation – trying yet again, I landed on a lyric site which credited it to Cliff Richard. Well I know what Cliff sounds like, and this certainly wasn’t him, but at last I had a lead, and I soon identified the song and recording as Raymond Froggatt’s The Singer. Case solved. I remember Froggatt being heavily promoted: we used to laugh at his name, and wonder why he hadn’t chosen a new one, as Harry Webb and Reginald Dwight did. He did have some success, scoring top ten hits as a writer with The Dave Clark Five’s The Red Balloon, and Cliff Richard’s Big Ship. But this song never scratched the charts.

That our most teasing riddles were posed by Stars and Bars and The Singer suggests that the most satisfyingly difficult questions are likely to emerge from the mediocre and the downright awful. But I suspect that’s it. There will be no more mysteries, ever.

And yet…where did we have that Chinese meal?

The People Versus @ The Bullingdon (Oxford) 2022-11-04

I’m sharing this excellent and enthusiastic review from music blogger Mylene and the Class of last Friday’s Oxford gig by my daughter Alice’s band The People Versus. Enjoy!

Live gig review It’s the busiest I’ve ever seen the place. Surely this audience size is far beyond safe capacity, and that seems odd: aren’t half of …

The People Versus @ The Bullingdon (Oxford) 2022-11-04

Spotify serendipity

The days where artists could make a decent living in the second division are probably gone.

Big tech companies, of course, are evil. So it’s unfashionable, if obvious, to point out that, in some ways, they’ve made life better. Anyone who remembers AltaVista has cause to be grateful to Google for the accuracy of their searches. And YouTube can find many interesting videos in seconds.

Amazon may be a horrible place to work, but the experience for customers is superb. You can either spend two hours trawling what’s left of the high street for a Black Labrador calendar, or buy one from Amazon in two minutes. (And when they fully automate their warehouses, those horrible jobs might give way to no jobs.)

Apple make obscene profits, but users are still delighted with the functionality and feel of their iPhones. And social media have undoubtedly helped lies to travel further and faster, and contributed to the increasing polarisation and toxicity of political discourse, but hey, people Like my holiday pics.

Spotify cannot, of course, claim to be in the same league as these giants. Within the music streaming market, it faces serious competition from those same tech giants in the guises of YouTube Music, Amazon Prime and Apple Music. Spotify is my music source of choice: I subscribe to their Premium service. At £9.99 per month (ad-free) to access just about all the music I care about, old and new, this seems extraordinarily good value for customers.

It ain’t perfect, though. Their curated playlists seem designed to avoid strongly flavoured songs which might turn listeners away. This is only an impression, but their algorithm seems tilted towards the inoffensive (Ed Sheeran) at the expense of the passionate (Adele). The result, I fear, might be to push music in the direction of muzak. It may be harder for musicians to get a hearing for songs that some love and some hate.

And it isn’t great for artists trying to break through. (I have taken an interest in this since my daughter has been in a band, The People Versus). Every 1,000 streams get about £3. For a four piece band to each earn just £10,000 annually from streaming – even ignoring their expenses and shares due to their record label, songwriters and music publishers – they need about 13 million streams. Small beer for Lady Gaga or Ed Sheeran, but a huge stretch for up-and-coming artists.

To illustrate, I was recently charmed at a gig by a band called Oi Va Voi singing Through the Maze. Twenty years ago, I would have bought a CD to own the track for about £10, of which perhaps £1 might have found its way to the artist. But now it’s right there on Spotify or YouTube at no extra cost, or if you listen to a few adverts, free. I would need to play the song 300 times on Spotify for the band to get that £1.

The good news for new artists, though, is that they can now keep most of the proceeds of their music. If they can finance their own recordings and videos, then the other main previous functions of record labels – organising the manufacturing and distribution – are largely redundant. The only area left to them is promotion, and the cynic in me suspects that this mostly consists of knowing who and how much to bribe to get your song on to popular playlists, radio shows, TV shows or films, or to get the artist a prestigious award or a key support slot on a big tour.

With the earnings from music now relatively transparent, it is tougher for record labels to get a decent return from their investment in new artists. These changes are reshaping the music industry, perhaps favouring big established artists over new music and middle-ranking acts. I suspect it has raised the stakes, making it harder to break through, but increasing the potential rewards. The days where artists could make a decent living in the second division are probably gone.

But from the customer’s perspective, Spotify is excellent: just about whatever you want to hear, wherever, whenever, however you want it. But the unexpected bonus for me has come from its algorithm. At the end of of a playlist – or even after a single song request – it will keep playing more songs, based on the music other users have played alongside your choices. I thought I knew a lot of music, but over the last few months the algorithm has introduced me to some great records I’d never heard before, as I rattle the pots and pans, clearing up after dinner.

It’s not infallible, of course. Quite often it plays me something over-familiar: I don’t need to hear All Right Now again, thanks. Or something I hate. (No more ELO, please). Or something I remember quite fondly, but don’t really need to hear again (Back Off Boogaloo). Or something I’ve never heard before, which is just awful, or just meh.

But sometimes it finds me a beloved record which I haven’t heard – or even thought of – for years, and I am joyfully reunited with a forgotten classic. Even better, a song I’ve never heard before comes on, and…oh…oh. I stop what I’m doing, and listen. Then I play it again, and maybe three more times: suddenly I’m like a kid again, getting my 45 out of its sleeve, playing it to death. I flatter myself that I know a lot of music, and discoveries are harder to make as I get older and feel more sceptical: how refreshing, then to feel that thrill again. It can make my day.

Here are some of the discoveries Spotify has brought to me over the last few months. Of course, these reflect my own taste. But do try letting Spotify run on once in a while when your playlist is over. Somewhere in there you may find a gem that you will treasure for life. I’ve written about Spotify but the links are to YouTube. Ain’t that the way.

Saunders’ Ferry Lane – Sammi Smith

When this was released in 1970 as the opening track on Smith’s album Help Me Make It Through The Night, I wouldn’t have given it a hearing: I couldn’t have got past that hair, that vocal twang. Country music just wasn’t cool – although Sammi Smith did later join the so-called “outlaw” movement with the likes of Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings, rebelling against the Nashville and Grand Ole Opry establishment.

But cool be damned. Saunders’ Ferry Lane is an exquisite song with a beautiful vocal. It describes, with an aching sense of loss, a visit in winter to the place where she had been with her lover in summer. We fear she might take drastic action at the waterside, but the lyric of the final verse reassures us, as she drives away. Inexplicably the song fades before the narrative is complete – perhaps the producer judged anything over 3 minutes and 3 seconds too long for radio play.

The desolate location is painted in vivid, atmospheric detail. Sentimental, yes, but hear the pain and emptiness in her voice when she drops away on the line “in the way we loved each other”, and the heartbreaking silence after “quietly as the dawn”. Listen only when you’re feeling strong.

Fu Manchu – Desmond Dekker

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, reggae was also not cool – the only white kids in Britain who listened to it were skinheads, whose enthusiasm for black Caribbean music was no barrier to racist attacks on Indian and Pakistani kids. Paul McCartney had made a nod to reggae in Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da in the White Album from 1968, and Led Zeppelin had mystified their fans with D’yer Mak’er in 1973. But it wasn’t until Eric Clapton hit with his version of Bob Marley’s I Shot The Sheriff in 1974, followed by triumphant London gigs by Bob Marley and the Wailers in 1975 that reggae found a mass white audience. By then, we had missed so much.

I listened with fresh ears to hits I had ignored, like Desmond Dekker’s Israelites, It Mek and 007 (Shanty Town). When punk arrived in 1977, it had a strong affinity with reggae, and – with the guidance of my cousin Jon Brockbank, who worked as a reviewer for Echoes magazine – I discovered many more reggae favourites, including Identity by The Mighty Diamonds, Conscious Man by the Jolly Brothers, and Police and Thieves by Junior Murvin.

It was after listening to the likes of these that Spotify proffered Desmond Dekker’s Fu Manchu from 1968. Dekker’s light, fluid vocal and the infectious beat had me hooked from the opening. The lyric may not be quite worthy of the soulfulness with which he sings, but the song is nevertheless irresistible. There is the bonus of some playful scat towards the end.

I Never Dreamed – The Cookies

The Cookies 1962 hit Chains had been covered by the Beatles on their Please Please Me album. But it was the Beatles who caused the Cookies’ I Never Dreamed – the most perfect and lovely of girl group records – to flop.

Gerry Goffin, the longtime collaborator and husband of Carole King, co-wrote this song with producer Russ Titelman. Unfortunately the record was released in 1964, a few months after the Beatles had turned the US music scene upside down. With the exception of Motown’s Supremes, girl groups were finished: no-one was interested in this charming, ecstatic teenage love song.

The Bargain Store – Dolly Parton

Dolly! I have loved Dolly Parton ever since I heard Jolene on the radio in 1973. The song did nothing in England until it reached the top ten in 1976. Despite her status as a global giant of and beloved icon of country music, few people would know more than three songs she has written – Jolene, of course, 9 to 5 and I Will Always Love You, more famous from Whitney Houston’s version.

I had heard The Bargain Store before, but had dismissed it as a lightweight song. On hearing it again a few years later it struck me as a sweet little song. It describes a woman damaged by a relationship, open to new love. When issued it was dropped from a number of country stations’ playlists because programmers thought the line “you can easily afford the price” was a reference to prostitution, when Dolly makes it clear that “Love is all you need to purchase all the merchandise”. Not too bright, those country stations.

Dolly tells the story in her 2020 book Songteller. “When I wrote The Bargain Store, I swear on my life that I was never thinking about love in any vulgar way, I was using the ‘bargain’ as it related to a broken relationship. But every man I know thinks it’s dirty. Somehow, this lyric is a dirty thing to a man. But I never saw it that way.”

The Fool – Sanford Clark

This song wasn’t new to me, but despite loving it when I discovered rockabilly in the 1970s, it had dropped off my radar until Spotify reminded me. It’s a very simple song, with a hypnotic guitar riff – co-written by Lee Hazelwood, who went on to success with Duane Eddy and Nancy Sinatra.

You Don’t Know – Bob Andy

Another reggae gem I’ve only recently discovered. Bob Andy was half of Bob and Marcia, who scored a UK no. 5 in 1970 with Young Gifted and Black. The lyric of You Don’t Know isn’t perfect:

They say you're looking slim
Are you sure to sweat out in a gym?
You even need a trim

but Andy carries it beautifully with his warm expressive voice. Jon Brockbank recalls meeting him at Reggae Sunsplash: “I remember him as a tall friendly dread, very different from his Bob and Marcia afro days.”

Alone again Or – Love

Love were a racially diverse band based in LA: band member Bryan MacLean wrote the song as Alone Again in 1965, inspired by his memory of waiting for a girlfriend. But it was not completed until 1967, when Love frontman Arthur Lee remixed the track to make his own vocals more prominent, and changed the title to Alone Again Or to add a little mystery. Arranger David Angel then added a string section, and a horn part, played by a mariachi band which had recently featured on a Tijuana Brass album.

The lyric treads the line between positivity and desperation:

You know that I could be in love with almost everyone
I think that people are
The greatest fun
And I will be alone again tonight my dear

The song made little impression in the US, and barely scraped into the UK top 30. But over the years it has quietly acquired classic status. An elusive melody, but a haunting song.

Stop the lazy bad guy signalling

Hardly his fault, then, but he’s ugly, so he must be the bad guy, right?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My second complaint arises from my modest height. Remember Shrek? The villain of the piece is Lord Farquaad: he’s certainly a nasty piece of work. But he is repeatedly mocked and short-shamed by the good guys when he clearly has no control over his height.

Farquaad is just one example of the stereotypical short, sneaky guy, characterised by actors like Danny DeVito. To be fair, this is part of a long-established tradition: over 200 years ago it suited British interests to paint Napoleon as comically small, although it seems he was of average height.

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

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

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

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

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

Rami Malek as Safin (picture: Universal/MGM)

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

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

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

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

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

Survey monkeys

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Votes for Members

Imagine what the press would make of such behaviour in a trade union strike ballot.

Sir Nicholas Goodison

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Numbered just 000030

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sir Nicholas tries to face down the rebels

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fun in the Pugwash Lounge

…a sandpit where you can practise for life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

…stuck with the rotten things for life.

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

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

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

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

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

Philately will get you nowhere

Might they not protect me out of all I own?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“…under British protection”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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