Taid

Nain, Taid, Sheila David and Susan 2
Nain and Taid on Fairbourne beach

“Do you have a girlfriend?”
“No.”
“You’re not one of those…misogynists are you?”

It was a harsh question for an easily embarrassed eighteen year-old.  Perhaps he was worried that I was “queer”. I had to tell him that no, I did not dislike girls. The problem was more likely in the opposite direction.

Taid (Welsh for grandfather) – Bob to his friends – was paying his first visit to us since we moved to Chipperfield a few months earlier. He was 91, and the long journey from Dolgellau must have taken its toll: a couple of days after he arrived he became ill, and he would not see his home again.

He was the longest lived of our grandparents, also the last surviving, and I remember him well, from the age of eighty or so. Quite deaf, with a bulky hearing aid, and the battery in his waistcoat pocket. In his other pocket he kept his favourite sweets: Callard & Bowser’s Old English Treacle Brittle, or Callard & Bowser’s Butterscotch.

callard2

I had a sweet tooth, and when I was small he would break off generous pieces for me from the paper packets, no doubt at some cost to my teeth. He had been a schoolteacher and headmaster: growing up in Llanuwchllyn, English had been his second language. He spoke it correctly, as only a language student does. So instead of “thanks” or even “thank you”, he would say “I thank you.”

Another quirk in his use of English was his understanding of the word “now”. His daughter-in-law Sheila found it infuriating that when she said “Dinner is ready now” he would wander off or start another crossword. Apparently “now” meant “soon” to Taid.

My mum Kath recalled that when she and Dad visited him in Dolgellau, he would tell long jokes, entirely in English, until the punchline, which he delivered in Welsh. Mum would then look questioningly at Dad, who would reply “It doesn’t really translate.” It might have been a risqué joke, or a pun in Welsh – or perhaps Dad’s Welsh wasn’t good enough, I still don’t know. In any event, Mum found it quite annoying. She also recounted being terrified as the old man drove his little Ford Popular around the narrow winding stone-walled Welsh roads at speed. I still remember the old leather smell of the seats.

His wife Maggie, our Nain had died in 1963, and in the summer holidays we would visit him in a house called Pantclyd in Dolgellau, named after the farm in Llanuwchllyn where he was born, and later at his flat in Henfaes, where we would arrive to find him snoozing in front of the cricket. The flat had only two bedrooms, so Rob and I slept in the spare room while Mum and Dad stayed in the B&B across the road. We would spend about two weeks there, exploring Snowdonia, climbing Cader Idris, mostly visiting the beach at Fairbourne – sadly now facing abandonment as sea levels rise.

Taid would also visit us near London every year, with Dad and his brother Glyn sharing chauffeur duties for the long round trip: he would stay one week with Glyn and his wife Sheila and family, and one with us. Taid loved his papers, and when he stayed with us he would have Y Dydd (a weekly Welsh language newspaper) and the Liverpool Daily Post sent to him. The Post was printed on thin and crackly paper, and while Mum was trying to take her much needed afternoon nap, he would fold and refold the broadsheet paper down to the smallest rectangle, briefly scan an article, then open the paper up and start again – quite oblivious, in his deafness, to the din he was making.

He had been a schoolteacher in Liverpool, and headmaster of Dolgellau Primary School. Mum reckoned that middle aged men walking through the town would straighten their ties and hide their cigarettes behind their backs when they saw him coming.

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

Robert Evan Edwards was born in 1883, his first name reused from his brother who had died in infancy two years earlier. He was the third of eight surviving children of Ifan and Elin Edwards.  Elin had a sixteen-month old daughter Ellen by an unnamed father when they married in 1876, and was already carrying their first child together, Evan John.  Ifan was a sheep farmer, but Bob seems to have been more interested in books.

Taid family group 2
c. 1897. Bob at top right, Ifan bearded, sitting, next to Elin holding child.  Richard and Evan John standing from left, Ellen seated third from left.

He told his granddaughter Susan that he became a pupil teacher in Llanuwchllyn, (which meant helping younger children) as his only other option at the time was unappealing – to become a servant on another farm. The 1901 census shows him as the only English speaker in the family home – the others spoke Welsh only. At seventeen, he was working as an elementary (primary) school teacher.

taid census

Taid002

Bob had pacifist inclinations, and the local newspaper records him in the same year arguing in debate that war was more damaging than drunkenness.

Temperance

Llanuwchllyn, Congregationalist Church Youth Meeting (February 1901).
“…There followed a debate “Does war or drunkenness do more harm to humanity?”. In the absence of E. Edwards, Bridgend, R.E. Edwards opened arguing “war”; A.L Davies argued “drunkenness”. Further comments were made by E.J. Edwards, Hendre. On voting, it was found that the majority believed that drunkenness is more damaging to mankind…”

Bob’s family saw its share of tragedy. His brother Richard, just eighteen months younger, drowned at the age of twenty while swimming in a lake near Pantclyd in 1905. Two years later, his oldest brother Evan died at the age of thirty in a gun accident.

Bob met Maggie Jones in about 1910 when both were working as teachers at Granby Street School in Liverpool, where one of their colleagues was Fred Attenborough, father to Richard and David.

School group - Fred Attenborough back row 3rd from left, Taid 4th from left, Nain 4th from left001
Bob standing, fourth from left, Maggie seated, second from left.  Fred Attenborough standing, far left

1914 provided brutal evidence of how much harm war could do to humanity. Bob was rejected for service due to poor eyesight: additionally teaching became a reserved occupation. When conscription for unmarried and widowed men was introduced in January 1916, he had been married to Maggie for six months. A child soon followed: their first son, Glyn, born nine and a half months after the wedding, and their second, my father Aelwyn after three more years.

Bob aided the war effort in a different way: in 1916 he volunteered to help the National Savings movement to raise desperately needed funds for the government. His work was rewarded with an MBE in 1945, and he served the movement for over fifty years in total.

Taid MBE Investiture letter001
Invitation to M.B.E. Investiture.  Not sure about the date of the letter…
Taid at MBE ceremony001
Taid receives his certificate for fifty years’ service to the National Savings Movement in 1966

He continued to promote National Savings in his old age: every Christmas and birthday my brother and I would receive £2 each – one pound to spend, and one pound to save. We were allowed to choose between the sensible Savings Certificates or the more frivolous Premium Bonds.

Bob’s view of life was generally serious, although this was not always shared by his wife and sons, as my Dad’s story relates:

Evening story

Evening. The Wild Woods Among
Evening.  The Wild Woods Among by Joseph Farquharson, R.A.

In fairness to Taid, this twee turn of phrase was not his invention, nor was it the artist’s – it comes from Fair Jenny by Robert Burns.

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

Taid’s was the first funeral service I attended, and I was eighteen. I understood, of course, that it wasn’t a tragedy when a man of 91 died. But still I found it upsetting, as we stood around the open grave on a remote hillside in Brithdir. The sun was shining, but there was a biting cold wind for October. It couldn’t matter to Taid, but the loneliness and desolation of the place frightened me, and my mortality hit me like a sledgehammer.

Dad wrote this:

Slow Welsh voices
Half forgotten cousins, dimly remembered friendships.
My two sons a part, but yet apart.
I look towards the sky, beyond the pale autumn hills,
Reaching for infinity,
Wanting to touch his hand just once again.
A little dust to his frail dust;
Then we go down through the trees, to begin life again.

I discovered a couple of years ago that Taid’s birthplace, Pantclyd in Llanuwchllyn is still occupied by an Edwards, so I sent an old-fashioned letter to enquire if we might be related, and was pleased to find out that the current owner, Eiddon Edwards, is indeed my second cousin – the grandson of Bob’s younger brother Llewelyn. My wife and I are hiring a cottage in Llanuwchllyn in September owned by Eiddon’s brother Geraint. I’m looking forward to meeting them both, and perhaps visiting Pantclyd. And also hoping to meet Dad’s wonderful cousin Arthur, still going strong at 98.

pantclyd
Ifan and Elin in front of Pantclyd, Llanuwchllyn, c.1900
Pantclyd in 2020

I would have made a poor farmer: my practical skills are poor and I don’t cope well with cold weather – working in an office suited me better. Similarly Taid seems to have preferred the schoolroom to the farm, and perhaps the effort he made to learn English as a child led his part of the family away from the land and into more comfortable (if less beautiful) workplaces. And for that, Taid, I thank you.

 

Nine Handy Trouble-saving Opera Hacks

Do you ever think there’s a little too much drama in opera? Here I offer a few suggestions as to how the participants could save themselves a bit of trouble.

Radames to Aida: “I’m sorry darling, but you know I can’t discuss army business.”
Don José to Micaëla : “Oh yes, Carmen’s hot alright, but she’s crazy.  Will you marry me?”

 

Soldier to Desdemona: “Madam, you dropped your handkerchief.”

 

Cavaradossi to Angelotti: “Sorry mate, you’re not hiding down my well.”
Violetta to Alfredo: “No worries, I’ve had my BCG.”
Calaf to Ping, Pang and Pong: “…and if I get them wrong?…OK, I think I’ll pass.”
Butterfly to Pinkerton: “Marry you? Do you think I was born yesterday?”

 

Rigoletto
Gilda to Rigoletto: “You’re right Daddy, he’s a ratbag.  Let’s go home.”

 

La Boheme HD
Mimi: “Ah, there are the matches!”

Please feel free to suggest more in comments.

Passing Back the Wisdom

kitchen

It was a competition organised by the local bookshop. “Knowing what you know now, write a letter using exactly 100 words to yourself at the age of sixteen.”  That might be fun, thought Nick.  Surely it was only fair to give the boy the benefit of his experience?

Nick felt contented as he stacked the dishwasher and sipped the last of his beer.  Jenny had cooked a very tasty curry, and the dinner table had vibrated with the happy, lively banter of their two daughters. Business had gone well today: he still enjoyed it, but was planning to retire perhaps in five years’ time, when the girls were both off to uni, so that he and Jenny could do more travelling. They could certainly afford it, and Nick wanted to retire, he liked to say, while he could still put his socks on without sitting down.

What would he say in this letter? His first instincts were commercial: find some ancient horse racing results and tell himself to put twenty pounds on an accumulator, and then reinvest the winnings in Wal-Mart. But if his younger self acquired huge wealth through a stroke of luck, would that really make for a good life?  Nick had worked for everything he had, and that made him feel good about it.

Of course he had made mistakes in his life – who hasn’t?  But none that were irretrievable, or had led to lasting damage. Nick had learned some caution and humility from those mistakes: surely he shouldn’t deprive the lad of those crucial learning opportunities?  Ok, it didn’t work out well early on when he had trained with a firm of accountants, but he had been able to use his experience there to get the job from which he built his City career: put the boy off accountancy and his future might not work out so well.

He took the coffees into the lounge and kept half an eye on a high-school drama. Good-looking and preppy American boys and girls filled the screen, while he tried to picture himself at age sixteen in the lower sixth. Immersed in A-levels, struggling with the maths. Socially awkward, and immature for his age. No girlfriend in sight: he had attended a boys’ grammar school, and the only girls he even knew had been his brother’s girlfriends. Often a lonely boy. A boy who worked hard, mostly, who desperately wanted to succeed, and who beat himself up when he failed: a boy who knew he was loved by his Mum and Dad, but also felt that their love was guaranteed, and that love could mean little if it wasn’t earned.

Nick weighed his middle-aged contentment against his memory of the anxious, stressed-out kid, and he wanted to give the lad a hug, to tell him everything would work out fine. Getting tired, he decided to get something written down before bed. He cast around for some paper and pulled out the Disney Aladdin Genie Magic Notebook from the bookshelf where it had sat ignored for ten years.

Dear 1973 Nick

I know things seem tough for you now, but trust me, it’s going to be all right. You will go to a good university, then find a job that you love, and be well rewarded for it. You will find love with a wonderful woman, and have lovely children. You will live in a big, comfortable house in the countryside, and you will be happy.

Don’t be so hard on yourself when you fail at something. Take plenty of time to do the things that you enjoy, relax more. You worry too much.

I promise you it will be all right. Hang in there kid.

from 2011 Nick

He counted the words – 111. Did a contraction count as one word or two? No matter, he could trim it on the way home from work tomorrow.  The leisurely rhythm of the Metropolitan Line could be conducive to creativity.  He carefully pulled the page from the book and slotted it into his briefcase.

He slipped into bed and kissed Jenny goodnight, and soon fell asleep, next to her warm body.

 

Nick woke up alone. It was 10 am. He stumbled as he stepped off the edge of the mattress on to the rough floor, and put his foot into cold pizza sitting on a cardboard box. A naked light bulb hung in the corridor. He relieved himself, mostly into the toilet. Something moved him to look in the mirror. Nothing there to surprise him: three or four days of stubble, the long greasy hair, the belly hanging over his sagging pyjama bottoms. He saw self-pity in the drink-ravaged eyes. Suddenly he heard himself hissing at the face in the mirror.

“Why did you lie to me? You promised it would be all right! You fucking promised me!”

The Rolling Stones, O2 Arena, 25 November 2012u

mick

2012 was a good year for London. The Queen celebrated her Diamond Jubilee, and millions defied awful weather to celebrate with street parties, and to watch the royal procession down the Thames. And of course London became the first city to host the modern Olympics for a third time: again the weather was no friend, but for a few weeks in August, London welcomed all nations. In those innocent pre-Brexit days, the city seemed like the capital of the world, a vibrant, open and cosmopolitan place, hosting the biggest party ever, presided over by Bolt and Farah. Tickets sold out for Olympics and Paralympics alike, and while there were outstanding British successes – most famously on “Super Saturday” – the venues were filled with knowledgeable and enthusiastic fans, happy to applaud excellence from all parts of the globe. Although there might have been less applause for the Russian competitors, had we known then what we know now.

The opening and closing ceremonies were of course a big part of the fun, and the Rolling Stones were notable absentees. Presumably they were invited, but Mick Jagger has a record of avoiding what he sees as “high risk” gigs where the Stones don’t have control or set the agenda – for example he chose to contribute a video with David Bowie to Live Aid rather than risking the Stones at a gig where they could only play for twenty minutes, and might be outshone by another band on the day.

rolling stones london

But 2012 marked the 50-year anniversary of the birth of the Rolling Stones, and something had to be done. So they announced a couple of gigs at the O2, to go on sale at 9 am, just twenty-three days before the first gig. It was a working day, but a quiet one, so I was able to log on before 9 and begin the frustrating business of trying to buy a couple of tickets. My colleague Chris put his faster reactions at my service, and joined the chase. To my indignation, work intervened and I became embroiled in a long phone call: but meanwhile Chris continued the search. Before long he drew my attention to his screen, where he at last had the offer of two floor tickets – more than I had wanted to pay, but I was getting desperate. I beckoned the “buy” trading gesture, and they were mine.

Stones ticket001

The price was exorbitant, but if I’d wanted I could have seen a tribute band for much less – there’s only one Rolling Stones. I get that. But what really grated was the additional £30 “Service Charge”. What the fuck? We have grown used to having to pay for things that were once free (or at least no extra charge – hold baggage on flights springs to mind). For me the test of fairness is whether you can avoid the charge if you choose. But you can’t go to the gig without buying a ticket, so it’s just bullshit and greed.

Ah, the Stones. Unquestionably the greatest rock’n’roll band of all time. No-one else can match them for authenticity, for appetite, for longevity, most of all for excitement. I was a latecomer to their party: I loved the Beatles of course, but the Stones seemed too dirty and threatening to a polite pre-teen boy. But Rob and I bought a pre-owned copy of Beggars Banquet, and it was rarely off our turntable about 1970. Street Fighting Man, Sympathy for the Devil, Jigsaw Puzzle, the sly, lecherous Stray Cat Blues, and the rare Keith Richards vocal on Salt of the Earth…amazing tracks. I was fascinated too by the gatefold sleeve, with the elegant cursive invitation on the outside opening to reveal the louche, depraved feast within.

beggars banquet

My wife reckoned she had ticked off the Stones when we saw them at Wembley Arena in 2003, where the Darkness playing a deafening support set. So Rob was the obvious choice to invite, and I met him off the Eurostar at St Pancras early on Sunday evening, had dinner and made our way to the O2.

Soon the lights went down, and the arena was filled with drummers filing into position surrounding the floor. The rhythm pulsed in our ears and we looked at each other: for one moment we were sixteen and thirteen again. The Stones were coming!

The band took the stage with a driving version of “I Wanna Be Your Man”, a rare acknowledgement of the helping hand they had from the Beatles early in their career – the story goes that McCartney and Lennon knocked it up in a corner of the room while Jagger and Richards looked on in awe. I took the choice as a promise that they would reach right back to the beginning of those fifty years. And the next three numbers also came from their first few years: Get Off Of My Cloud, It’s All Over Now and Paint It Black.

Jagger was 69 years old, and made no concessions to his age, capering around the stage like a man half his age, but there were moments of unintentional comedy: Get Off Of My Cloud came across as a crotchety old gent telling kids to get off of his lawn.  But he had some fine banter: “It’s taken us fifty years to get from Dartford to Greenwich” and a cheeky teasing line about the ticket prices, “How are you doing in the cheap seats?”

The playing was loose and energetic. Mary J. Blige joined Jagger for Gimme Shelter, which was fine – although Florence Welch’s turn at the next gig was much more exciting, when she went toe to toe with him, right in his face. Jeff Beck appeared for a bluesy Going Down. My premonition that this series could mark the band’s final gigs – although happily to prove wrong – seemed to be confirmed by cameos from former Stones Bill Wyman (It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll and Honky Tonk Women) and Mick Taylor (Midnight Rambler). Towards the end of the set Keith Richards took over vocal duties for a couple of numbers, and large numbers of fans headed for the loos or the bars.

Jagger returned and the show wound to a climax with Brown Sugar and Sympathy for the Devil. While we cheered for an encore, the excitement mounted as we made out a gospel choir gathering onstage in the gloom. That had to mean You Can’t Always Get What You Want! They finished off with an electrifying Jumping Jack Flash with Keith Richards pounding out the famous riff: that has never been my favourite Stones song, but since hearing this the song brings me out in goose bumps.

The show was supposed to end with (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction, but a late start meant that we were now up against the venue curfew: playing another number would have incurred a hefty fine on the band. With Jagger in charge, that was never going to happen. To compensate, here is a professional quality clip of their storming performance from Glastonbury the following summer, where that epic riff churns on forever.  Just the bow at the end gives me the shivers. Back in the O2, we may not have had Satisfaction. But we certainly had satisfaction.

 

Set List

I Wanna Be Your Man
Get Off of My Cloud
It’s All Over Now
Paint It Black
It’s All Over Now
Paint It Black
Gimme Shelter (with Mary J. Blige)
Wild Horses
All Down the Line
Going Down (with Jeff Beck)
Out of Control
One More Shot
Doom and Gloom
It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll (But I Like It) (with Bill Wyman)
Honky Tonk Women (with Bill Wyman)
Before They Make Me Run (Keith Richards on lead vocals)
Happy (Keith Richards on lead vocals)
Midnight Rambler (with Mick Taylor)
Miss You
Start Me Up
Tumbling Dice
Brown Sugar
Sympathy for the Devil

Encore:
You Can’t Always Get What You Want (with the London Youth Choir)
Jumpin’ Jack Flash

Basil Murray Savage 1910-1994

mr-savage-wfs-0001

You don’t usually remember much about the kids in the year above you at school: any interaction tends to be fleeting, unless, for example, you’re good enough to play in the school football team a year early.  But I remember Andrew Skinner, or should I say, Skinner! because that was how I usually heard his name, being shouted by an angry teacher.  He was frequently in trouble, but to me he seemed wild rather than malicious.  More than fifty years after we were schoolmates in primary school, I know much more about him.

I recently wrote a piece called Teacher’s Pet, gentle nostalgia about my time at Watford Field School, including recollections of my fourth year teacher Mr Savage, who taught me in 1966-67.  Ten year olds have only the vaguest idea of the age of adults: he was clearly older than my Dad and younger than my grandfathers.  In fact he was 56 years old when he taught me.  He was heavily built, an imposing physical presence for ten year olds.  He had been at the school forever – back in 1939 he was recorded as a schoolmaster, living in Queens Road, Watford.

I painted him as old fashioned, strict, inclined to corporal punishment, but quirky and in some ways likeable.  Of course this view was coloured by my personal relationship with him: I was good at my lessons, hardworking and hated getting into trouble, and I generally liked him – enough even to come back with a friend to visit his class once or twice after starting at Watford Grammar School.  But not everyone had my habit of obedience, or got the answers right.

Savage signature001

After Teacher’s Pet appeared in the Watford Memories Facebook page, some former pupils offered a very different view of him.

“Being lifted off the bench by your ear, your hair forcibly rubbed the wrong way, a blackboard compasses needle being rapidly stabbed between your widespread fingers and the Chinese burn on your wrist weren’t something I can say I enjoyed. Not forgetting the table tennis bat.  I was frequently clipped around the head or ear for really doing nothing other than glancing away when he was talking or patrolling. On the occasion he grabbed my wrist and struck me across my knuckles with the edge of a wooden ruler I vowed I wasn’t going back to school. I feigned illness for a few days but my father twigged and got the whole story out of me. Parents’ evening was coming up and on the night he put on his full RAF uniform and peaked cap and took me with him. He was 6 feet tall, athletic and a Warrant Officer. As a one time Flight Sergeant and drill instructor he knew how to stand tall and direct his voice. At the time of the appointment he asked the teacher certain questions – along the lines of 1. Does my son attend school regularly? 2. Is he on time? 3. Does he behave? 4. Does he try his best? And 5. Is he polite? Mr Savage replied (and I remember this very clearly) in soft appeasing tones a positive yes to each question. My dad stood up to his full height and said. “If my son misbehaves then by all means punish in a way that is appropriate but”- and he leant forward and put his forefinger on the nose of the teacher – ” should you again strike him for no reason there will be a hole in that wall behind you … formed by you passing through it”. And with that took my arm and led me away straight to Mr Colman in order to inform him of what he had just said to Mr Savage. At the age of eleven, my respect and sense of awe of my dad went sky high.”

Savage’s behaviour here fits the stereotype of a bully who is, at heart, a coward.  Another story confirms his tendency to arbitrary acts of violence:

“Mr Savage could be very nice and smiley and almost purred when he was in a good mood such as on a school coach trip to Cheddar Gorge that I was on. He came up to me and started stroking my right ear whilst saying he remembered my older brother (who had been in his class 5 years before).  I didn’t feel comfortable with him doing this but kept quiet. When I joined his class the next term I soon realised that he easily became flustered and irritated when there was any behaviour that he disliked, as there was with two or three of the boys. He went very red and called out to whichever miscreant to come up to the front of the class and would say “bend over boy” before hitting him on the backside with one of his several bats depending on the seriousness of the misdemeanour – a table tennis bat for the first offence and then larger instruments like a rounders bat up to a cricket bat for really serious transgressions.

I didn’t want any of the above to happen to me so I didn’t play up at all. However I suffered a very unpleasant episode when I arrived for school one morning. Mr Savage came up to me very obviously flustered and red in the face. He asked me “where is so and so?”  I can’t remember who he was asking for. While I thought about it he started hitting me around the head with his hand which was very unpleasant. This only stopped when he realised I did not know about the person he was talking about. He hurried off to approach someone else. This incident really shook me and I told my mum about it when I got home. She was all for going to see the headmaster, Mr Colman, the next day but I asked her not to as I did not want Mr Savage to take it out on me for reporting him, so she reluctantly agreed not to go into school.”

From a female perspective:

“He was evil. The bat wasn’t only for the boys. He didn’t care what he used.  The board rubber used to fly across the classroom.”

Savage’s conduct with the girls in his charge did not go unnoticed by school authorities at the time:

“After complaints about the way he treated girls he was given a boys only class for a few years until it was forgotten. It was like priests just being moved to another parish where they could start abusing again.”

Yet most agree that Savage was an effective teacher by some criteria. Success was measured by how many of his pupils went on to the local grammar schools: in earlier years through the eleven-plus exam, later through his continuous assessment reports.  My parents certainly thought highly of him.  He was thorough, hardworking and methodical, but fear was an important part of his armoury.  Some former pupils have spoken in his support, albeit usually in qualified terms.  One of the girls he taught commented:

“I remember Mr Savage well and didn’t particularly like it when he went for your ear lobe and gave it a rub but I seriously don’t think he meant it in an abusive way. It was a game of ‘quick get away, he’s got me’ and we all used to laugh. It was always in the open. I was at Watford Fields during the 60’s and have many happy memories. Sure, we tried to avoid Savage wherever possible but back then it was ‘normal’ to get punished for misbehaving, my brother was one of these but it hasn’t caused him any sort of anxiety, we just took it as normal. I was tapped on the bottom a couple of times by Savage in a ‘playful’ way, but I was only ten so had no knowledge of any sort of sexual misbehaviour. In hindsight I can see that it was highly inappropriate but I have laughed about this with several former pupils over the years.”

A boy he taught said this:

“I was in Mr Savage’s class 4B and never had a problem with him apart from getting the bat across the backside and having the chalk duster thrown at you if you were misbehaving. He went out of the class room one day so we took the opportunity to break his wooden bat in half, he was furious but never did find out who did it. I don’t recall anyone having an issue with him, he was strict but most teachers were back then.

The most glowing report of him comes from a boy who Savage taught while still in his thirties:

“Yes, I was a Savage victim. Savage by name and nature but by God he got results and I not only remember him, but his ruler and every detail of his button nose and glasses…and he had a class of fifty pupils.  He taught me to observe and love live and to take an interest in whatever. I still remember most of the poems that we were obliged to learn by him and that was in 1949. I got a scholarship to Watford Boys Grammar and from there bigger and better things. I thank Savage for most of my education. I learnt more in that one year that has lasted me a lifetime, and I am now 82.”

 

Teacher’s Pet was intended as a light-hearted piece.  It was the truth through my eyes, but it wasn’t the whole truth.  I omitted the story of my worst experience of Savage, which still troubles me, and which I have previously shared with just one person.  But if Andrew Skinner has the courage to tell his story, it shouldn’t be so difficult for me.

One afternoon Mr Savage was called out of class.  He set the class some reading, and as I was one of his favourites, and regarded as reliable, he instructed me to write down the names of any children who spoke while he was gone.  Of course, we were lively kids, and after a couple of minutes there was already quite a hubbub.  I set about my task diligently, perhaps vengefully, recording friends and foes alike, annoyed that the “authority” I had been given was being ignored.  There were nearly fifty in the class, and so many were now talking that I struggled to keep up and became flustered.  Little Robespierre that I was, I took the instruction literally: one well behaved and good natured boy, whom I counted among my friends, politely asked whether he was on the list.  Well he was now.

When the noise had built to a crescendo, the door suddenly opened and Savage strode back into the classroom.  He took the list from me, and called the names from it one by one – I think this included the girls – and made each kid – bad and good – bend over, and hit them on the backside with what I recall as an outsize table tennis bat.

Soon after he had finished, the bell rang for afternoon break, and a sombre class filed out into the playground.  I stood on my own in a corner, horrified at what I had wrought, unable to face my friends.  One or two kids did approach me, though – the louder ones, hardened by habitual punishment, to ask why I’d failed to put them on the list.

If anyone held a grudge, it didn’t last for more than a day or so, but the memory stayed with me.  So much that in the age of social media, I made contact with one of the victims – the one who had asked if he was on the list – and apologised.  He had no recollection of the incident, but I have found it harder to forget.

 

The tone of gentle nostalgia in Teacher’s Pet struck an especially false note for Andrew Skinner.  He commented:

“I am glad he didn’t harm you. Fifty four years later and I am still suffering from the damage that man did to me.”

Skinner is autistic but was diagnosed only recently.  In the 1960s when he was at primary school, autistic behaviour was not widely understood, and was not distinguished from misconduct.  Many teachers thought the remedy was a good beating.  Skinner describes one experience in vivid terms:

“Mr Savage lost his temper with me and launched an assault. He slapped me around the head, body and backside until I blacked out and lost consciousness from the pain. I came round in a pool of my own urine and dragged myself to my desk as he continued to beat me. My life was effectively destroyed by that man.  My life and self-respect died that day.”

The trigger for this assault was astonishingly trivial.  Another boy had knocked the blackboard off its easel – clumsily rather than deliberately – as the class filed back in after lunch, and Savage blamed Skinner.  The punishment was inappropriate for an accidental offence and it was given to the wrong person, but most damagingly it was hugely excessive. Only recently has Skinner found some closure for this trauma:

“I made a report to the police over fifty years after the horrendous abuse took place. I spoke to a specialist historic abuse team who were very sympathetic and they took a statement. They came back to me and told me that they could find no trace of him still being alive and at that time they had not received any other complaints. It was good to be listened to. This along with the comments made here (Facebook) by other victims helps with a sense of validation.”

I contacted Skinner to ask his permission to tell his story.  He summarised his view of Savage:

“It is true that he could be charming, inspirational, funny and that he got results. He was also a petty tyrant who ruled by fear.  He regularly casually struck students around the head, seemed to take pleasure in hitting both boys and girls with his bat and occasionally completely lost control and launched attacks like the one I suffered.”

As Skinner went on to Watford Grammar School, ironically Savage may have regarded him as one of his “successes”.  At the age of 64, Skinner is now a 7th dan black belt kick-boxer teaching 15 classes a week, and his Facebook page shows a good life and a happy family.   So I gently questioned his assertion that Savage had destroyed his life.  This was his response:

“The experience had far reaching, some permanent impacts. My self-confidence and self-esteem were shattered and there was an impact on my sexuality and ability to make and maintain relationships. I still have nightmares and have had periods of clinical depression and anxiety. I really only started addressing it a couple of years ago when I had a very late diagnosis of ASD (Autistic Spectrum Disorder) which made sense of a lot of other experiences. Yes I have had two successful careers and am very lucky in my second marriage. I have seen the world and enjoyed some great experiences. This has been despite the experience.”

Skinner seems to have received little parental support.  In response to the story above which concerns the RAF father, he posted

“I wish I had a dad like yours. If I had complained to my father even after he beat me unconscious I would have been in more trouble for getting in trouble at school.”

His parents’ perspective may have been to welcome the school’s help in curbing what they saw as the bad behaviour of their son.

Former pupils’ recollections of Savage fall into three broad categories.  There are those who did not (often) get on the wrong side of him, and perhaps look back on him tolerantly – although in my case, he still left his mark.  There are those who frequently behaved badly, but recognise that their bad behaviour was a choice: they knew what the likely punishment was and accepted that they “had it coming”, and that it was “the way things were done in those days”.

But the third category is where the damage was done, in cases where children felt there was injustice, perhaps because Savage hit them when they had not misbehaved, or merely for getting an answer wrong, or where there was extreme violence.  In Skinner’s case his autism meant he was not able to modify his behaviour – perhaps distraction, staring or an expression of confusion being mistaken for insolence – and he was severely punished for something outside his control.

Corporal punishment was widespread at the time, particularly at more traditional schools, and it may be that most children suffered no lasting damage from proportionate discipline – if seen as just, by contemporary standards.  But where injustice is perceived, or the punishment is excessive, it creates a grievance which can cast a long and dark shadow.

Savage has been dead for twenty-six years, and has been put on trial on Facebook with no chance of reply.  We should not judge him for his failure to recognise autism – very few did back then.  His teaching methods – when kept within reasonable limits – were effective, and not unusual by the standards of the 1960s.  And we don’t know whether he might himself have been the victim of violence in his childhood, or traumatic wartime experiences.  But he has had his supporters in this debate, and none has denied that he regularly hit children or that they feared him: meanwhile others have confirmed the extreme severity of his punishments.   His repeated bullying of children, and the awful violence of his attacks when he lost his temper – these are difficult to forgive, and for some, impossible.

Of course Andrew would always have had to try to manage his autism, but his traumatic and violent memories – caused by the absence of diagnosis and by Savage’s temper – mean that it has taken most of a lifetime to rebuild his self-esteem and his life from zero.  With ongoing therapy, it is still a work in progress.

savage grave

(Thanks to Andy Skinner for allowing me to tell his story, and to a former classmate for the photo of Savage.)

Paddington Bear and the Cholesterol Bath

It started with Paddington 2. That film inspired Debbie to make many jars of delicious marmalade from the carton of Seville oranges she unexpectedly acquired in Waitrose.

Hitherto breakfast at Edwards Towers had been a snatched, casual meal: a bowl of Weetabix before my run, or Shreddies afterwards, cereal in bed as a weekend treat: or when still at work, scone fed into my mouth with eyes on my screens as I logged in, scrutinising my emails for anything remotely interesting, or discussing the day ahead or the weekend past with my colleague.

The making of the marmalade has changed everything. The table is set, orange juice is poured, porridge and toast are prepared, and the cafetière is reached down into service. Breakfast is becoming ever more formal. Come back in a couple of months and you’ll find me sporting whiskers and a white napkin while a rosy-cheeked maid serves me my kippers, eggs and tomatoes under a silver cloche, and my butler hands me a freshly ironed copy of The Times, from which I emerge occasionally to offer comments like “Trouble brewing in the Baltics, m’dear.”

This new routine is very pleasant, of course, but it represents change, and change can be difficult for me. Just ask the lovely fellow who worked at Moorgate Buttery. So set were my habits that I acquired the nickname “Brown Scone and Orange Juice” – he would spot me in the distance picking my way round the Crossrail works, and have my breakfast lined up on the counter as I walked in. I sometimes wonder whether retirement might have been a mistake, if the price of leisure is forgoing that sort of service.

When the plucky Buttery was eventually consumed by the building site I had to devise a new breakfast regime, just as I was reaching the age where I felt that nothing should, ever, change again. It was a difficult few months. I must have been unbearable, and if you’re reading this Chris, I’m sorry.

Breakfast is a variable feast, at its best when you take a break in a hotel or B&B in Britain. Being no chef, I approach this from the perspective of the gourmet, or, at least, the glutton. On the first morning, I can never resist the full English/Scottish/Welsh/Irish/Cornish etc. Usually you will be elsewhere for lunch and often will choose to dine in a different restaurant, so breakfast is critical to your assessment of the hospitality. Large hotels too often leave you to forage amongst dried up slivers of bacon, congealed scrambled eggs and greasy lukewarm frankfurters. Posh hotels will sometimes plate up a breakfast for you which in theory has all the ingredients, but where they are not, as it were, talking to each other: egg, sausage, bacon, tomato and mushrooms isolated like strangers at an awkward party.

But the real treats are to be found at smaller inns and B&Bs, where a hearty plateful is the norm, with the constituents in joyful harmony. My list of core ingredients would include sausage, bacon, fried egg, fried tomato and mushrooms, while welcome additions would be baked beans, fried bread, and black pudding. Hash browns are a transatlantic addition, but can be allowed. Tinned plum tomatoes are not: they are a cooking ingredient. Not everyone likes baked beans in the mix, and they will often be served in a pot: “Free the beans” is the cry as I tip them out to join the team on the plate.

Essential accompaniments include fresh orange juice (not that pasteurised muck), toast and marmalade (a full English – although very filling – contains few carbohydrates, so you must pay attention to fuelling yourself properly) and coffee refilled to order.

The most delicious and awe-inspiring cooked breakfast I have eaten was at Redgate Smithy B&B formerly run by my friend and schoolmate Clive. The full Cornish was a wonder to behold, and can still sometimes be viewed on satellite images.  I had to call on my marathon endurance skills to finish it, but did I give up? No sir, I did not. It certainly repaid the effort.

Of course, some private houses serve an excellent cooked breakfast: my brother Rob’s famous Cholesterol Bath, often served as a farewell meal, springs to mind. If we care about our health, this should not become a regular habit. But I’ll leave you with the thought that Field Marshal Montgomery was said to have polished off a full English every morning during his North Africa campaign – a possible origin of the phrase “the full monty” – and he lived to be eighty-eight.

Teacher’s Pet

Watford Field 1A
Watford Field Junior School, class 1A with Mrs Stanton, 1963/64

Everyone knew who Jacobs was. He was tall for an 11-year old, and he was black, and as one of just two black kids in our school he stood out. Whether he was actually a troublemaker I couldn’t say – I was in 2A and he was in 4B – but Mr Savage (yes, that was his name) certainly thought he was. So Mr Savage made straight for him when he saw a ruckus developing in the playground.

“Who started this? Jacobs, was it you?”
“Not I, sir.”
“Don’t say not I, Jacobs. Not me!”

I had already embarked on a lifetime journey of pedantry, and sensed that an injustice had been done. But I didn’t get involved: I was Mr Savage’s favourite, and there was no reason to put that at risk.

With hindsight that status conferred doubtful benefits. Savage had a peculiar gesture which he reserved for his favourite boys: he made a V shape with the forefinger and middle finger of his right hand, which he slid down over the top of my ear after I’d given a correct answer, saying “Arr, Edwarrds” in his Cornish burr. That might not have got him arrested, even these days, but certainly it felt strange.

By the time I reached Mr Savage’s class, 4A, I was also favoured, presumably due to my small stature, when he sought to demonstrate the technique for dividing by a fraction. He put me on a seat, bent down to seize my ankles and dangled me in the air. “Turn upside down and multiply!” he said. He didn’t act out the multiplication. “I should really be doing this to Gillian Bone” he said, referring to a bright but talkative girl repeating her final year in primary school, “but it wouldn’t be allowed”. No sir, it wouldn’t.

He could be fun, though. Sometimes in the summer term, probably after he had completed the continuous assessment reports which would largely determine our secondary schools – and perhaps set our courses for life – he would announce that as the sun was shining, we were going to have a game of cricket in the playground. We would file out of mid-morning lessons and take turns to bowl, and to bat at a spring-loaded wicket on a wooden base, sitting on the tarmac. The ball must have got up quite high, but I don’t remember any casualties. I can’t recall, though, whether the girls took part in this activity, and now I wonder if they might have been still in the classroom, getting an early briefing on the facts of life.

Mr Savage was a disciplinarian, and sometimes used what looked like an oversized table tennis bat on unruly boys – and sometimes girls – to keep order. At the time he probably felt, like most of his contemporaries, that corporal punishment was a crucial part of his armoury – he had a class of nearly fifty. Meanwhile Mr McDonald ruled 4B in military style – when you reached the fourth year, there was no escape, it was one or the other.

I started at Watford Field Junior School in September 1963, having attended Oaklands Avenue Infants’ School – a tranquil little place nestling in pleasant Oxhey suburbia, with kindly lady teachers, just two classes, mostly well behaved pupils and plenty of grass and trees. Watford Field was altogether more mixed, situated near the centre of town, with a tarmac playground.

On my first morning I was ill at ease. But at break time on my first day my brother – three years older – came over to where I was tentatively playing with friends from infants’ school and introduced me to some of his big friends, who ran around and played games with us for a while. I felt honoured and protected.

Half way through my first year, my family moved from leafy Oxhey, one mile from school, to leafier Chorleywood, six miles away. Me being such a swot, Mrs Stanton, usually undemonstrative, was aghast when I told her about the move, until I reassured her that I would be remaining at the school: our mother worked in South Oxhey, and was able to drive us to and from school each day. But living so far from school certainly made play dates more difficult.

In the playground, the default activity was football, but bouncy balls weren’t allowed: classroom windows overlooked the playground, as did the back windows of the houses in Tucker Street. So a short cut to popularity was to have your mum or grandma sew up a nice tight ball out of your dad’s old socks, and there would be a few days of high quality football (using the markings of the netball court) before the ball became ragged and limp. Some kids would game the rules and put a tennis ball in the middle, but anything bouncing too high would soon be confiscated.

I dreaded the cold weather: while the other boys whizzed around on lethal ice “slides” I would stamp my feet and shiver, just counting the interminable minutes until we were allowed back in the building.

Supervised sports were conducted on the eponymous Field, and one time Mr McDonald was trying to lick the football team into shape when Watford FC manager Ken Furphy rocked up and took a turn. If he was scouting for the youth team, he was disappointed. “You could drive a bus through that defence” was his comment. Furphy had children at the school, Susan and Keith, likeable kids with none of the swagger which might have come from having such a famous dad. Ron Rollitt, secretary at Watford FC also had twin boys at the school, Michael and David, among my friends in class.

My football career was mixed: despite my size I was good enough to be on the fringes of the school team, and was proud to put on the light and dark blue hooped WFS shirt. We had a run of three fixtures in six days: just before the first of them we were confined by rain to the classroom at lunchtime. Someone threw a paper dart in my direction which I ducked with such vigour that I cut my forehead open on the desk. Blood was pouring from the wound, and after being patched up I was driven by the headmaster Mr Colman in his white sports car to Watford Peace, where the injury required several stitches. When the excitement of all this attention had worn off, I was devastated to be missing three games, just when I had become a regular selection. Mr McDonald showed his kinder side by allowing me to attend the third match as a linesman.

In my second year I managed to lose my football boots. I can’t remember how, but I must have felt responsible, because I raised no objection when Mum and Dad told me to replace them cheaply from the secondhand pool run by one of the teachers. So at lunchtime with heavy heart I went to see Miss M, a woman of Rosa Klebb demeanour, who brought out a dusty box of horrible, uncomfortable looking old boots, more Dixie Dean than Bobby Charlton. I couldn’t bring myself to try any on. The rejection must have stung Miss M: at morning assembly next day there was a pointed announcement about boys refusing “perfectly good boots”. I wasn’t named, but I’m sure anyone watching would have noticed me turning bright red. When I told Mum and Dad about this humiliation, they relented and agreed to buy me a new pair.

A better football memory was from a Saturday morning match: chosen to take a free kick, I booted the heavy, wet leather ball hopefully in the general direction of the mob in the penalty box, but nobody got a touch and it trickled inside the far post. I couldn’t pretend it was planned that way, but hey, a goal is a goal.

I was also fond of cricket, and was batting in a supervised after-school game on the field when a girl from the year above me came in to bat at the other end. Sceptical comments were silenced when she faced her first ball and whacked it to the boundary. We developed a good understanding between the wickets and put on about forty runs together. I was thrilled to be in a successful partnership with a girl.

Rik
What Alan Bennett has described as “a fully developed ability not quite to enjoy myself”

The old school was old school: seven eights are fifty-six, rods poles and perches, πr squared, how many stamps 5/8ths of an inch x 9/16ths of an inch will be needed to cover the walls of a room this big by that big with windows yay big. The A-stream teachers were solid, and I remember Mrs Stanton, Mrs Gregory and Mrs Otter with respect and affection. But there was also Mr H who “taught” 3B: he took us for handwork, and it emerged that besides struggling with discipline, he struggled with simple arithmetic. I exchanged looks with Tony Johnson, my main rival in our fortnightly tests, and we said a silent prayer for the children of 3B.

Some fifteen years after I left the school my mum saw in the Watford Observer that Mrs Stanton was retiring, and that former pupils were invited to the party in her honour. I went along and showed her my photo. She must have taught over 600 children since I was in her class, so I wasn’t expecting her to recognise me, and she didn’t. But she pointed straight to the worst behaved boy in the class. “Karl something. I remember him.”

 

David Bowie, Rainbow Theatre, Finsbury Park, 24 December 1972

I saw him first, sort of. After Bowie’s hit in 1969 with Space Oddity, he chose a song called The Prettiest Star as his follow-up, featuring Marc Bolan – months before T.Rex broke through to huge success with Ride a White Swan – on guitar. Apparently the recording session had gone well until Bolan’s wife June told Bowie “Marc is too good for you, to be playing on this record.” Despite airplay on the Kenny Everett Show (where I heard it), it is said to have sold fewer than 800 copies. Space Oddity had been opportunistically released to coincide with the Apollo 11 moon landing, and Bowie was still seen as a novelty act. Strange to think that for nearly three years he was a one-hit wonder. But I thought, and think The Prettiest Star is a beautiful plaintive love song, much enhanced by Bolan’s fluid, wailing guitar. (A brittle, metallic version was later to appear on Aladdin Sane) So before you could say K.WEST I had ordered a precious copy from Strawberry Fields in Rickmansworth.

But Rob was the true fan. He had spent many Saturday nights that year with his friends Nigel, Jill and Steve, pursuing Ziggy Stardust around Dunstable, Aylesbury, Hemel Hempstead and divers other places to your writer unknown – this was, they think, the sixth time he and Nigel had seen Bowie. The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars and Hunky Dory had taken a pounding on our turntable in the previous six months, and I loved what I heard: sharp, edgy rock songs mixed with quirky slower songs, flavoured by this exotic androgynous creature. Can little brother tag along, please?

Our evening didn’t get off to the best start. Rob had put a dent in the Daf on the way back from Watford, and had to square that with Dad. But my spirits were high: it was Christmas Eve – I was still young enough to find that wildly exciting – our cousin Jonathan was staying with us over Christmas, and we were going to see David Bowie.

Bowie had just spent nearly three months touring the US with the Spiders from Mars. In his absence Ziggy Stardust sold strongly, fans were beginning to seek out his earlier albums and his reputation was soaring. The Jean Genie, recorded in New York City two months earlier, had just been released and was flying up the charts. After an amazing year there was a huge buzz around his triumphant return to London, to play the prestigious Rainbow Theatre at the start of a short British tour.

The Rainbow, as it appeared the following year, besieged by Osmonds fans

It being Christmas Eve, Bowie asked the audience to bring in toys – his father, who had died three years earlier, had been a public relations officer for Dr Barnardo’s childrens’ homes. Rob stepped up and bought a toy, which was added to the huge pile in the foyer, and a whole lorry-load was reportedly distributed to grateful children the following morning.

Rob’s ticket. Retained it was.

(Returning, if I may, to the vexed question of ticket prices, you might remember that it was 75p to see Led Zeppelin at Wembley Empire Pool thirteen months earlier. Of course £2 was still astonishingly cheap to see a legend like Bowie breaking through, but even allowing for the prevailing 7% inflation rate, this seems quite a step up, considering Led Zep’s huge established reputation. By now, rock music fans were starting to earn grown up money, and the spectacular rise to modern ticket prices was tentatively underway.) Sorry.  Anyway…

There was no show on 23 December – The Rainbow was unavailable

Possibly because of the incident with the Daf, we arrived late, and the show had got off to an unpromising start. Stealers Wheel (featuring Gerry Rafferty) gave us no clue to how soon they would break through with the Dylanesque cowbell classic and radio perennial, Stuck in the Middle with You, or to the songwriting talent that gave us the sublime Baker Street. It was just an aural battering.

But things picked up when at last they stopped playing, and by the time the lights went down again some in the audience were near hysterical. After playing Beethoven’s Ode to Joy – perhaps a cheeky nod to Elvis’s opening with Also Sprach Zarathustra – the band launched into the Stones’ Let’s Spend the Night Together (shortly to appear on Aladdin Sane), followed by a pulsating rendition of their regular opener Hang on to Yourself (seen here at the Hammersmith Odeon the following year). The set was fast, tight and electrifying, and Bowie surfed the wave of adulation.

NME writer Charles Shaar Murray reported the frenzied audience reception. “Just for the record, they’ve started screaming at David Bowie,” he wrote. “At the Rainbow on Christmas Eve young girls were reaching out for our hero’s supple limbs and squealing in the customary manner. Whether it’s Bowiemania or Ziggymania or a combination of the two is not yet apparent.”

Earlier Ziggy Stardust gigs had included an acoustic set in the middle, but that had gone. Murray wrote: “That American tour has really honed the Spiders to perfection. The show is tougher, flashier and more manic than it’s ever been before.”

The set included tracks from four different Bowie albums, from The Man Who Sold the World through to Aladdin Sane. The message was clear: if you were a true fan, you had to get them all. I was fascinated by the strobe lighting during Mick Ronson’s solo during The Width of a Circle, and stunned by the pitch at which Bowie kept the audience for the whole show.

I remarked to Rob and Jonathan that as well as being an exciting performer, he seemed like a nice guy. They weren’t so sure. Perhaps I had mistaken his knowing, satisfied grin – at having his audience where we wanted them – for affability. As always with Bowie, there was an element of calculation, his careful choreography mocking the usual spontaneity and wildness of Rock’n’roll. The show wound up to its climax with The Jean Genie and Suffragette City, but it was the melodrama of Rock’n’Roll Suicide (seen here, again Hammersmith Odeon footage) that stirred the audience to frenzy. Bowie prowled the stage screaming “Gimme your hands…cause you’re wonderful” – written for this very purpose – reaching out his healing hands to fans like the god he had become that night.

Here is the set list from that fantastic evening:

Ode to Joy (Beethoven)
Let’s Spend the Night Together
Hang on to Yourself
Ziggy Stardust
Changes
The Supermen
Life on Mars?
Five Years
The Width of a Circle
John, I’m Only Dancing
Moonage Daydream
The Jean Genie
Suffragette City
Rock’n’Roll Suicide

Someone was bold enough to smuggle in their cassette recorder that night, because here, believe it or not, is an audio of the entire set.  Never mind the quality (which is terrible), let’s just celebrate the fact that it exists.

When we went back into the cold night air, Jonathan and I were surprised to see Gerry Rafferty crossing the road in the opposite direction, headed for the Rainbow – presumably to pick up his stuff. Perhaps he preferred going to the pub to seeing the headline act. Mate, you can get a drink any night of the week.

 

The shadow on the lawn

Chestnut Avenue

and it was, let’s say, late July, early in the holidays…hot days, promised by the morning fog and dew, time suspended…papers delivered hours ago, work done…toes trailing in water, sun on my back…John Arlott…360 for 4, Sobers bats next…drifting to the side, nudging to the middle…bee buzzes…I raise my head, the shadow of beech trees creeps closer…getting near five thirty maybe now but still warm

pool

David Gauke: My Part in Not Preventing His Downfall

Before I had reached the end of the driveway the door opened and a man in his seventies shouted after me “He’s a traitor!” It seemed that not all voters had embraced Gauke’s idea of a more thoughtful and respectful style of politics. I was reluctant to engage: I was delivering leaflets, not canvassing, it was half past three and it would soon be dark. But I couldn’t let that go unchallenged.

“Why do you think he’s a traitor?”
“Because he stopped Brexit happening”
“He voted for Brexit three times. On two of those, Boris Johnson voted against.”
“He disrespected the result of the referendum. He put his own career before the country.”

And so it went, round in circles. No use pointing out that he had done exactly the opposite: he had put his whole political career on the line – probably ending it – to protect his country. Or that Johnson (let’s keep first names for friends and loved or respected ones) had built his career on selling a damaging lie to his country.

Some ten months have passed since part 1, and in that time David Gauke pretty much defined himself as Mr No-No-Deal Brexit – helping to rally support across the parties to prevent what he saw as the disastrous sudden exit from the EU which could have resulted from Johnson’s determination to take the UK out on 31st October “come hell or high water”.

Gauke responded with characteristic understatement: “I personally think we should try to avoid hell or high water.” The band of Tory rebels opposed to no-deal became known in his honour as the Gaukeward Squad. Working with Labour, the Liberal Democrats, Scottish National Party and others, they passed a law requiring the Prime Minister to seek an extension to Article 50, extending the UK’s membership of the EU by three months – very much reducing the risk of a cliff-edge Brexit.

His reward for this was the removal of the Conservative whip – of course, the Prime Minister doing so had repeatedly defied the whip without consequence under Theresa May.  Gauke decided to fight his seat in South West Hertfordshire as an independent. His decision was too late, and his record not sufficiently anti-Brexit for the Liberal Democrats to stand down their candidate (as they had in nearby Beaconsfield for Dominic Grieve) and (spoiler alert) perhaps from this point he had little chance of winning.

I have never voted Conservative, but I was appalled at how he had been treated by his party for being moderate, pragmatic and principled – outraged that such a reasonable and civilised politician had to go rogue to follow his conscience: he was, as they used to say in cop dramas, “off the case”. There could be no firmer evidence that the lunatics had taken over the asylum.

So I decided that he would have my vote: my mum – once a Communist, always a socialist – must have been turning in her grave. Furthermore, I would campaign for him. By delivering leaflets, that is: I didn’t feel sufficiently thick-skinned for canvassing. I went down to Chorleywood where he was assembling his troops, wearing a sweater in his dark red campaign livery – one unkind fellow suggested he had chosen that shade because he was marooned without a party. Thanks to that memorable face of mine, he recalled that I had visited him in the House of Commons with my daughter.

I added my name to the volunteers list, and was soon spending every free minute of daylight walking the streets of Chorleywood, Rickmansworth, Maple Cross and West Hyde in the cold and rain, sometimes in the dark, trying to infiltrate flimsy leaflets through Rottweiler letterboxes. There was always more to do. Endless creaky gates, slippery steps. Beautiful houses tucked out of sight, blocks of flats where the “Trade” buzzer gets you in until 1pm. Houses which at first appeared derelict but on closer inspection showed signs of habitation. Houses where the rattle of the letterbox was immediately followed by the thud of a furious dog against the door, at which I would decide that the leaflet, only half in, was enough in.

Gauke001

The t-word was hurled after me more than once, but some reactions were friendlier. One man said he knew Gauke “from the football” and thought him a nice guy, and that it was a pity he’d been forced to stand as an independent. He didn’t promise his vote, though. On another driveway a man with a Scottish accent handed his leaflet back and said he was planning to vote for Gauke anyway. “You know why? Because of that” he said, indicating the word “principled” on the leaflet.

I attended hustings in Berkhamsted and Rickmansworth: Gauke was easily the most assured and persuasive speaker there, as you would expect from someone who has been in the House of Commons for fourteen years, and been a member of the cabinet. The Conservative candidate Gagan Mohindra was slick and polished as he trotted out the party line, Get Brexit Done. The Labour candidate did his chances no good by failing to show up for either meeting – the first time he claimed the organisers – the Berkamsted Citizens Association – were biased against him, and the second time he pleaded work commitments. The Liberal Democrat candidate did her chances no good by showing up for both meetings: although likeable, she lacked confidence and stumbled on her words too often. The Green candidate did well once he warmed up. At least no-one hated him.

There was also a packed rally in a large hotel conference hall in Gerrards Cross, attended by three ex-Conservatives now fighting as independents: besides Gauke there was Dominic Grieve and Anne Milton, supported by that well-known firebrand troublemaker Michael Heseltine. The hall vibrated with enthusiastic agreement, and just for a moment we believed that the sensible people could reclaim the country from the loons on the right and the left. “I’m sorry my party went bonkers” said Grieve.

Gauke clearly enjoyed the freedom of being off the leash, not having to spout a party line he didn’t believe in, and being able to speak the often complicated truth as he saw it. He also had the opportunity to showcase on Twitter his sense of humour which had not been prominent in previous campaigns. His campaign was fresh, energetic and enthusiastic. It was noticeable how many of my fellow campaigners had never been involved in politics before, except as voters. Something about the stand Gauke had made – or been forced to make – had stirred quiet people into activism.

During the hustings in Berkhamsted, Gauke made the claim that he was the candidate the bookmakers thought most likely to defeat the Tories. This is a common strategy among chasing parties in elections. Known as “squeeze”, the idea is to position yourself as the only candidate capable of beating the favourite, in the hope of squeezing tactical votes away from rivals.

I checked this claim and found it true, but the betting market in individual constituencies is very thin, and thus easily susceptible to manipulation. To take a random example, if a punter had put, say, £20 on Gauke to win at 10/1, the best odds available might immediately fall to 8/1 – substantially shorter than the Conservatives’ other challengers – which, crucially might persuade the tactical voting websites that he was the candidate most likely to give the Conservatives a bloody nose. This in turn might persuade Liberal Democrat voters – and natural Labour supporters who couldn’t stomach Corbyn – to hold their noses and vote for a man who was himself a Tory some three months ago.

(At one point you could get 13/2 on Gauke with one bookie and 3/10 on the Conservatives with another. Meaning that a punter backing both in the right ratio, prepared to discount the negligible possibility of Labour or the Liberal Democrats winning, could bank a 10.8% return on their stake. Risk-free money from bookies, who knew?)

Polling day dawned, eventually, soaking wet for the entire fifteen hour period the polls were open. I was glad not to have volunteered for duty as a teller, but instead was asked to tour the three polling stations in Chorleywood at regular intervals to collect the tellers’ sheets and deliver them to campaign HQ. Tellers are not allowed inside the polling station itself, but in one location they were able to accost voters from the comfort of a lobby right next to a snack bar. The others were not so lucky, and were out in the rain juggling notepads, pens and umbrellas, trying to write with numb fingers. Twice I was asked to pull the soggy pages off the pad myself as their fingers were no longer up to the task. Each time they asked whether I had come to take over their shift, and I had to disappoint them, much as The People’s Front of Judea offered moral support rather than rescue in The Life of Brian.

I tried to ease their suffering with hot coffee and chocolate bars in the daylight, and mulled wine and mince pies after dark. Some gratefully accepted: others seemed too far gone to care. In the spirit of Gauke’s message of a more civilised, co-operative politics I extended the offer to rival tellers: these stoics, sitting in the December rain for hours, were all heroes of democracy. Sometimes the Liberal Democrats took it up, but the Conservatives were less interested.

In theory, at HQ the numbers on these tellers’ sheets would be transformed into names, from which the boffins could isolate which of our declared supporters had not yet voted. These laggards could then be chased out of their homes into the deluge to vote, or, in extremis, offered a lift to their polling station. In reality, however, as Gauke’s campaign was a start-up, it lacked infrastructure: to make much use of this information it would need extensive lists of supporters’ addresses, phone numbers and emails – much more than could be gleaned from a few weeks of canvassing. In the event, campaigners were able to “knock up” some voters in person and by phone. But I was told that just the sight of a Gauke rosette at a polling station would provide evidence of a credible campaign, which might persuade waverers that he was “worth a shot”.

By the time the polls closed, I was pretty tired, and headed off to bed disheartened after the first two results suggested that the exit poll had been accurate. I assumed, given the projected national picture, that Gauke had no chance of winning.

And so it proved. It was always going to be very difficult for an independent – even such a high profile one – to overturn the huge majority, and given the national picture, it was completely impossible. But to achieve 26% of the vote from a standing start was, I thought, something he should be proud of. He went down swinging, and certainly justified his claim to be the candidate most likely to defeat the Conservatives. The winning candidate polled close to 50%, so Gauke would have needed almost every other vote to beat him – a total tactical vote.

My guess is that many voters were so bored of the whole Brexit debate that they saw Johnson as the man most likely to bring things to a resolution – just make it stop – although in reality of course, Brexit is not an event, but a process, which will take years. It also seemed that alarm at the thought of Corbyn as prime minister was enough to persuade many waverers to support the Conservatives. In any event, Britain has lost an experienced, diligent and thoughtful public servant in David Gauke.

I imagine that, unless the Conservative party soon reclaims the middle ground and accepts him back in the fold, he’ll retire from politics and resume his legal career. With his reputation and CV, he will be able to do so at a very high level. But I would not be surprised if he made a career in journalism or broadcasting: he writes well, has a confident television presence, and commands respect across the political spectrum – or at least he will do, once Conservative Brexit passions have cooled down.

While I was collecting sheets and offering coffee, a voter approached one of Gauke’s tellers and asked him to tell her about what his “Independent Party” stood for. He managed to resist telling her there wasn’t a bloody party, that was pretty much the point: instead he started to patiently explain the events which led to Gauke standing against the Conservatives. At this point the highly experienced Liberal Democrat interjected to remind his fellow teller that he was not allowed to try to influence voters. Helpfully he added “You can’t” then indicated me, standing with my soggy rosette, “but he can.”

So I lured the lady over to my car, where I gave her a leaflet. “I don’t like Boris Johnson” she said. “Who’s most likely to beat him?” I assured her that Gauke was her man. She went off clutching her leaflet. “Thanks, I’ll vote for him then.” That one’s on me, Gaukey.

.

Night visits

Drifting off and there’s that car park, that roundabout, just in the top left up there, just as you go out, just as you come in, three dimensions playing on the boundaries of sleep

I’m not in the exam hall, no, but the exams are in about two weeks’ time, I’m in the lecture theatre in 1978, in that new social sciences block they built at Warwick, the subject is econometrics and it’s just before lunch and the lecturer is filling the whiteboard with line after line of incomprehensible algebra, I’m making a halfhearted attempt to take notes, copying perhaps every other line, semi-legibly, but aware that they will never convey any meaning, the exam a cloud looming over me

I’m a late entrant in a marathon and I haven’t done any training but I know I can get round, I start off behind all the others and enjoy running without any pressure on my time, light and effortless, and catch up with the rest but the course enters a building where I take a break and when I come out the others have gone and I don’t know which way to go

I’m sitting on a chair at a table, and I want to move to another, so I rise up, still in seated position, float over the table and drop into the other chair in a controlled descent to within an inch of the seat, not touching it but hovering just there ready to move again

We’re all there, extended family, but none that I know, in our big holiday house, and we’re packing to go home: we have to catch a plane, and there’s plenty of time, or at least there was, but the deadline for leaving has passed, and everyone else is ready but still I fuss around trying to complete unspecified but to my mind necessary tasks, or to find things that should be easy to find, and I’m still engaged in this when the plane’s departure time has passed

I don’t like this story and I know that I can end it by jumping from a high place, and I know that no harm will come to be as I’ve done it before and it was fine

I’m staying in a large house, York maybe, perhaps I own it, and there’s a small hatch leading off a landing to a suite of larger rooms which are nicer but neglected, and I wonder, am I allowed to go there and why don’t I use them more often

I’m at work perhaps starting back at one day a week for holiday cover, and I’m shown into the dealing room but there’s no seat, and eventually they find me a position but it’s nowhere near my colleague and I sit down but I can’t log in and there’s no business and I think wait, don’t I need to retake my exams

We’re in a small group and Mum is there and I say, but Mum, you’re dead, and she says yes, I know, but never mind that, and I wake up and I’m just glad to have seen her

I’m driving, or at least I’m travelling in a car, and it’s in reverse, and I can steer but I can’t stop it or control the speed, and I’m looking at the mirrors, and it’s way too fast and I see cars going the other way, and the car seems to be negotiating the bends and avoiding other traffic but I know this is not my doing but providence and cannot last

Nain

You might know that Nain (pronounced nine) is Welsh for Grandma, and Taid (pronounced tide) is Welsh for Grandpa. So our parents used those names to distinguish them from our (more) English grandparents, Nana and Gan-gan I am lucky to remember all four of our grandparents, although Nain – Maggie as she was known – is the one I remember least well, as she died when I was seven.

But I remember the long trips to Dolgellau in the early 1960s when the British motorway network was in its infancy. Dad would speed us up the M1 as fast as our old black Wolseley would take us, then Mum would take over, hands gripping the wheel for dear life, tensely negotiating the A5 through the midlands landmarks. Brownhills, The Dun Cow…those terrifying three-lane highways – who owns the middle lane? Overtake the lorry, if you feel lucky. There would be a packed lunch to eat in the car: sandwiches wrapped in silver foil and chocolate mini-rolls. The smell of vacuum flask coffee takes me back there still. Dad would take over again beyond Shrewsbury, winding through the hills, possibly needing to stop once or twice if Rob or I felt unwell.

At last we would reach Pantclyd, a rambling old house near the centre of Dolgellau. Nain and Taid would greet us, and Rob and I would rush down the steep steps to the small lawn, to marvel at the stone lion’s mouth discharging what I thought was a stream. The garden was in a hollow, and seemed forever damp – it had always just rained, or it was about to, and there were mossy flagstones and the smell of the wet box hedge.

Nain and Taid had met when they were colleagues, teaching at Granby Street elementary school, and a long career of not taking any nonsense from schoolchildren had left her with a slightly austere manner.

Nain front row, second from left. Taid back row, fourth from left. Top left is Fred Attenborough, father of Richard and David.

But I remember she could be affectionate and indulgent with her grandchildren. She was also protective of Taid: one time I was playing a game which required him to count how many times I could jump in the air (or something) and she stepped in to tell me that “your Taid is getting tired.”

In her late seventies she developed lymphatic cancer, and I remember being shocked when my Dad read out a letter from Taid reporting that she was making progress, because what he meant was that she was now able to pick up a cricket ball. Then early on Boxing Day 1963 my Dad took a phone call: she had died. I was called into my parents’ bedroom to be told the news, and I remember crying, and protesting “I didn’t want her to die” – as if I thought my wishes could have made any difference. When my Dad died in 2015 I found his folder of stories, which included his own memories of that day.

Rob and I didn’t attend the funeral. Mum said the first time she saw Aelwyn looking old was when he was bearing his mother’s coffin.

Also among Dad’s papers were large envelopes containing research and handwritten family trees for three of my grandparents. Dad didn’t pursue genealogy himself, but as he grew older had often been asked by relatives for details of family history, and had carefully filed the correspondence. In one email exchange he shed some light on Maggie’s father, John Cadman Jones, who died when Dad was five:

I remember him as an old man sitting in the corner of the parlour in Granby Street (No.87) (Liverpool), saying nothing. I discovered later that he was probably just a sodden heap. My mother was put off alcohol for life by this experience. My brother Glyn, three years older than me, remembered “helping” Grandpa with his printing machine.

A cousin from the same part of my family confirmed the character of Maggie’s father:

John Cadman was fiery and drank. His son John said as a young boy he would lie awake for his father to come home worrying if he was drunk and breaking plates. His Aunty Flo called him a street angel and a house devil.

The young Maggie’s early home life can’t have been easy, and her daughter-in-law Sheila recounted how in later years Maggie’s son would occasionally enjoy a quiet pint at his cricket club, to be told off by his mother: “Glyn, you stink of alcohol!”

Nain and Taid, with Aelwyn (left) and Glyn

When my Dad’s house was sold, I paid one last visit before the house clearance people came to do their work. I thought I had cleared out everything we wanted to keep, but there was a blue and white willow pattern tapestry Nain had made, originally as part of a firescreen, but now hanging as a picture. I couldn’t leave it there: I brought it home, and it’s still in the family.

51

Eventually I get to doing my math. It’s calculus so I don’t really get it, but I get some answers down, pack up my stuff and go in the kitchen for a glass of water. It’s gone midnight but there’s light showing under the study door. I knock quietly and look in. That smell again.

“How’s my all-American boy?”

Ah. Dad found the whisky. He waves the bottle in my direction, but this time I wave it away.

“Dad, what are you doing?”

“Drinking. Take a seat.” I sit down on the edge of the chair. He tells me about the change at work. They’ve introduced a rotation system: in the interests of fairness all employees below management level will have to work a week each month in the listening room.

“I’m there this week. I mean, I’ve always known what goes on there. But I don’t want to be part of it.” He sits there with his head in his hands. I try to think of something to say.

“But surely it’s only a problem for criminals and traitors?”

Eventually he raises his head and changes the subject.

“So, you had a good time at camp?”

“Yeah, pretty good.”

“And you’re an American boy now?”

“I figured I might as well make the best of it.”

“Congratulations. Do you even know what happened in 2033?”

“Of course I do. Britain applied to join the United States after they saved us from civil war.”

“Heh, sort of. A lot of people who were there at the time remember it differently.”

“But surely…if the US hadn’t intervened…Hassan would’ve…”

Dad pours himself another drink. I’d like to stop him drinking and I’d like to go to bed, but he wants to talk. And who knows, he might say something interesting when he’s drunk. He lowers his voice.

“Hassan was all right. He was popular, and his party won the general election in ’32, fair and square, most people thought. He’s a Muslim but…well there was no…” Dad thrashes his arm around to conjure the right phrase. “…no crazy idea of turning Britain into an Islamic state.”

Ah. That wasn’t what they told us at school. I settle back in my chair, fold my arms and listen. Dad seems to sober up a little as he focuses on his story.

“But the Prime Minister, Becker, the one who lost the election, he’s a stubborn old guy, and he says no, we’re not having a Muslim prime minister, thank you very much. And he refuses to budge, and the police back him up.”

“Of course, a lot of people don’t like it. There’s huge protest marches in London, Edinburgh, Manchester. Sometimes violent. Arson, looting. The police do what they can, but the cities are out of control, in flames.”

He takes a swig of whisky, but tilts the glass too much and dribbles some down his shirt. He flaps at it with a tissue.

“Hassan goes to Dublin and tries to set up a government in exile. Becker’s government declares a state of emergency, but the army refuses to take sides. And the violence keeps getting worse. So Becker asks for help from the US army, and they come over and restore order, and make sure as hell we don’t get a Muslim prime minister.”

“So that was the liberation of Reagan Square?”

“Well. At the time most of us called it the Trafalgar Square massacre. At least three hundred dead, in cold blood.” Dad puts down his whisky and blows his nose.

“Jeez.”

“My little sister was there. Ivy, her name was. Same as your sister.” His shoulders start to shake. I stare for a while.

“Oh…Dad…I didn’t…you never…” He sniffs, rallies himself and ploughs on.

“So Britain now has an occupying army. And the US president says, hey, would you like to join the USA? And Becker says not really, thanks for the help. But the USA insists on a plebiscite, a full popular vote. And we’re all thinking, it doesn’t matter, people won’t vote for it.”

“But then, the results come out and blow me, there’s a 56-44 vote to become the 51st state. Becker cries foul, but it’s too late, he’s sidelined and put under house arrest. There’s US troops surrounding parliament, Buckingham Palace where the King lived, the dear old BBC…”

“The what?”

“So by May 2033 it all went through, and since then we’re number 51.” I’m trying to take this all in. We sit there in silence.

“So Dad?”

“Uh?”

“After all that, why’d you call me Washington?”

“Your Mum chose it. She was always more pro-US than me. Less anti anyway. And she thought a good American name would help you get along in life, protect you. But I got to choose your sister’s name.”

It’s nearly one. I take Dad into the kitchen and try to clean him up a bit. I make him drink a couple glasses of water. When he’s gone to bed I get the whisky out of his study and pour it down the sink, wash the glass up and put it away, then bury the bottle in the recycling.

At last I go to bed, but it’s no use. I’m still awake at 3 a.m.
At the end of school I get away from class quickly and wait outside Ivy’s classroom. She’s surprised – we’ve hardly spoken since the evening of the raid.

“Ive, can we go for a coffee?”

“Really?” She shrugs. “OK, if you like.”

So we find a table in a quiet corner of McGuffins with a couple of small lattes. And I tell her what I learned from Dad the other night, and about our Auntie Ivy. She goes very quiet. Her head goes down and she starts crying. Finally she looks up.

“I’m so sorry, Wash.”

She comes over and puts her arms out. I let her hug me.

“Yeah, it’s OK. But it’s Dad who needs to hear that.”

 

At home I ask Dad if he’s got any pictures of his sister Ivy.  He manages to get his act together long enough to find one, and I get it printed. It’s a nice picture too: she looks hardly older than me, and you can see the intelligence, the warmth, the humour. No resemblance to Dad at all.

After school I buy a ten dollar bunch of flowers, Ivy cuts a length of ivy off a tree in the park, and we take the subway to Reagan Square. As usual, there’s a lot of big guys wandering around there in trainers and leather jackets.

We can’t decide where to leave the stuff, but we finally settle on the statue of Robert E. Lee. Ivy puts the picture of our auntie next the plinth, and arranges the flowers and the bit of ivy in front, with a card she’s written.

For Ivy, the beautiful auntie we never knew. With love from Washington and Ivy.

I take a quick couple of photos and we leave. I look back and see one of the big guys bundling it all into a black sack and carrying it away. But we’ve done what we came to do.

elementary

there’s wineum and beerium
(encouraging delirium)
aelwynium kathleenium
make robium and rikium
there’s coffee and walnuttium
chocolate cake and stuffium
beryllium (yes, reallium)
with scottium makes biffium
and timium and debbium
there’s striderslite and kryptonite
and dekker and the israelites
bottium and bittium
productive of two babium
rachelium, alicium
(inflates balloons with helium)
chipsium and fishium
who live in an aquarium
jamaicarum and lagerum
(or fosters in australium)
milkium makes butter (um,
add chlorine and some sodium)
fionium robynium
theodorum and ulysseum
there’s thisium and thatium
tumbi snudge and crackium
there’s falko-um and finnium
and spanish inquisitium
(you did not expectium
the spanish inquisitium)

if I could give a longer list
of elements I surely would
of others that I may have missed
no news has come to chorleywood

 

(apologies to Tom Lehrer, W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan)

Please don’t

eu-uk-flag-std

Please don’t say “We didn’t win two world wars to be pushed around by a Kraut”.  How old are you?  Unless you’re over 120 years old you can’t have fought in two world wars, and unless you’re over 90 you can’t have fought in one. Don’t claim credit for something you haven’t done. You and I have no idea what those wars were like to live through. My father did fight in WW2, and he was a keen supporter of the European Union.  He saw it as a major factor contributing to peace in Europe since 1945.

Please don’t use words like betrayal when talking about MPs acting sincerely in what they see as the best interests of the country.  Britain is a representative democracy where we elect generally well informed Members of Parliament to make decisions on behalf of the country.  Perhaps this is why the majority of MPs voted in favour of remaining in the European Union.

Please don’t invoke Winston Churchill as a supporter. He led Britain in a war which was forced upon Britain, not one he went looking for. He was a founding father of the idea of a European Union: in 1946 he advocated a close partnership between France and Germany from which could be built a peaceful and prosperous Europe. He was no Little Englander.

Please don’t say “We survived the blitz.” Because a lot of people didn’t.  Nor did you, unless you actually lived in a British city during WW2.  Nobody voted for the blitz, it was not a war of choice.

Please don’t equate Angela Merkel with Hitler.  She is a decent, democratic and pragmatic leader. She grew up in communist East Germany, and knows much more about living under totalitarianism than you do.

Please don’t wave the Union Flag around as if you own it, or as if you speak for everyone in the UK. It is the flag of a country whose people have many different opinions. There is no contradiction in flying it alongside the EU flag. The narrow nationalist agenda followed by the people most fond of waving the union flag is likely, over time, to result in the break-up of the UK. Scots are resentful of being dragged out of the EU, and will not tolerate nationalist English leaders for long. In Northern Ireland, once the contradictions of being part of the UK while also having a border with an EU country start to cause daily aggravation, a majority of the residents might soon decide that life would be easier as part of the Irish Republic. And the flag wavers could be left with just the cross of St George.

Please don’t think leaving the EU is somehow patriotic. Ponder why Trump and Putin want us to leave. Listen to the businessmen around the world who want to trade with the UK, who think we’re crazy to leave.

Please don’t insult our fellow Europeans. We come from the country of Shakespeare and the Beatles, and we also come from the continent of Michelangelo, Einstein, Marie Curie, Aristotle and Voltaire.  Celebrate it.

Please don’t lie, and please don’t encourage it or ignore it when people on your side of the argument lie. Just stop it.

Addressing unfairness in the Virgin Money London Marathon and Boston Marathon qualifying times

img_2136
About to decline a jelly baby

Back in May, when I was just 62, I was quite pleased to complete the Milton Keynes Marathon in 3.52.11. “Wow, that’s a good time” said a friend. “Nice of you to say so” I replied, “but no, not really.”

You see, some old fellow out there has run a 2.36.15 marathon. I can use an age-graded calculator which divides the (approximate) world record time for my age by my own time: this comes out at 67.29%, compared to 100% for the best in the world of my age. Welcome to the unforgiving world of age grading.

Age grading is a useful tool for motivating runners as we get older. Inevitably, as we move into our forties and beyond, new personal bests will elude us. But an age graded percentage can offer encouragement by showing us that although our times are slower in absolute terms, they can actually be better quality when viewed against our peers. So we can still have an achievable target to aim at. In my case I’m pretty chuffed if I can hit 70%.

For many years, the London Marathon has reserved a number of “Good For Age” places: men and women achieving certain times at other marathons in each age group have been guaranteed entry. This changed from the 2019 race: since then, running a good for age time only gets the right to apply for a place: a cut-off is then applied inside the qualification standard to reduce the number of qualifying runners to the preset limit.

Presumably this change was made to manage the unpredictability of the number of qualifiers, as the London Marathon grows ever more popular. But it is harsh on runners: in previous years, they could find a flat, fast course and aim for a London qualifying time, knowing that if they managed to hit the target, they had a guaranteed place. But now they must wait to see where the cut-off is made: very possibly all their effort to qualify will have been for nothing.

In my case, had I run eight minutes faster and got just inside my 3.45 qualifying standard, I would have been bitterly disappointed when the cut-off was later made at 3.42.20. I suspect most runners would rather see slightly tougher qualifying standards, but with guaranteed entry as before: at least they would have a fixed and transparent target. The organisers shouldn’t find it difficult to manage some variation in numbers: a surplus could be absorbed by the inevitable large number of late cancellations due to injury, while any extra places would be snapped up by charities.

Comparing the qualifying standards for men and women highlights another potential issue. The standards for women appear more lenient compared to world record standards. I thought I’d run some numbers to check this impression.

London Good For Age001

The table confirms this – women under 60 have substantially less demanding standards. In the youngest age category, the required age grade is more than 9% lower than for men. This means that for a large band of club standard runners, women will qualify while men of comparable ability will not.

This is not an accident. The organisers have deliberately chosen equality of outcome over equality of opportunity. The website states:

The number of Good For Age entries for the 2020 Virgin Money London Marathon is capped at a total of 6,000 places and has been split evenly with 3,000 entries for women and 3,000 entries for men.

“Split evenly” sounds fair, but takes no account of the different numbers of men and women who might apply. As far as I know, this figure is not disclosed, but presumably the easier standards for women reflect fewer applications. And while there are many areas where a case can be argued for positive discrimination, I’m not sure that running – the most democratic and easily measured of sports – is one of them. Surely both genders should be set equally demanding targets?

Notice, though, that older men have easier targets than women in terms of age grading. Age grading isn’t perfect, and can easily be affected by outliers, especially in the older categories, where statistics are relatively thin. And if, for example, an 80-year old is willing and able to run a marathon, most people would say good luck to them. In 2019, 14 men and 3 women over 80 started the race, and all but one finished. You could hardly say they’re hogging all the places.

It’s interesting to compare qualifying times with the Boston Marathon. Alone among the major city marathons, Boston sets tough standards for the great majority of its entrants. It has been run regularly since 1897, and as the oldest annual marathon, it takes pride in being seen as a high quality race.

Boston qualifying001

Boston also used to guarantee entry to anyone achieving the qualifying standard, but from 2012 the ever increasing popularity of the race led them to apply a lower cut-off. Such a high percentage of their entrants are time qualifiers (over 80% for 2020) that they have to carefully manage the numbers to stay within their race limit: this contrasts with London where the 6,000 Good For Age places represent only about 15% of the total field. In 2019, for example, Boston had so many applicants achieving qualifying times that it imposed a drastic cut-off of 4 minutes 52 seconds lower, which resulted in it rejecting 7,248 runners with qualifying times (about a quarter of the applicants), and then tightening the qualifying times for the following year.

Boston age grade standards for men are much more consistent, falling broadly into the 65-70% range, while London varies hugely between 57% and 74%. However, the women’s standards in Boston seem to have been added as a lazy afterthought – a flat 30 minutes has been added to the men’s time in all age categories, which strongly favours younger women, so that, for example, an 80-year old woman needs a world-class 90% age grading to qualify, while younger women again have substantially easier targets than the men.

Boston has been running a successful marathon for over 120 years, London for nearly 40. These fantastic races have earned the right to run themselves as they wish, and are only being constrained by their own success. But both, if they wished, could improve on the fairness and transparency of their qualification rules, without having to make more places available.

Boston could reset the women’s qualifying times to a more consistent age grading standard by tightening them for younger groups and loosening them for the over 60s.  The current standards for women have not been given serious thought.

And London? I’ve no doubt that the organisers thought they were doing the right thing by setting the standards to achieve equal representation for men and women. But isn’t that just patronising? Surely all runners – where possible – deserve an equal opportunity. Qualifying times should be adjusted to make it a level playing field between men and women. And I’m pretty sure most runners would like to see a return to guaranteed entry for qualifying times – even if that means the times are slightly more demanding – so they know exactly what they have to do to qualify.  If the organisers care about the runners, they should prioritise fairness and transparency over their own convenience.

king commode and his expanding rubber band, Watford Grammar School for Boys – 1st April 1969

take-off

A school revue it was, called take-off!, when I was twelve, young enough to be gratified and think it hilarious that my maths teacher, Mr Wolton, (and many other very game teachers) could appear on stage in comedy sketches. I sat next to John Moore, a friend dating back to primary school. It was 1st April 1969, and there was a relaxed end-of-term vibe. Everything seemed very funny.

My cousin David appeared playing a tune on a colourful structure he called magic mushrooms (!), a strange plaster sculpture he had made in art class, which he said “surprisingly turned out to be tuneful!” I was quietly proud of how well he was received.

But the revelation that evening was a real live rock/jazz band – the first live gig I had heard – king commode and his expanding rubber band, modishly foregoing capitalisation that evening in common with the rest of the event programme. The lineup was given thus:

on a good night the band includes snake-hips sugden  martino g-string clarke  liver lips louis leach  steve bongos stead  paul fuzz-face devonshire  ralph licorice-stick compton  chris bass-man newman  beasley the bum  colonel richard entwistle & finally lord fantastic

I didn’t know at the time, but these boys had auditioned for the TV talent show Opportunity Knocks the year before:

opportunity knocks

I wonder how many of the lads in this band – which I now know comprised five boys from Watford Grammar and five from Bushey Grammar – went on to become solicitors and accountants. When the band started playing I was transfixed: I stared unblinking at the stage, laughing with joy, taking in the noise, the rhythm and the stage antics. I can only recall one of their numbers: consistent with the zany stage names, they performed what seemed, to my untutored ears, a storming version of the Bonzos’ Death Cab for Cutie – an Elvis pastiche which the Bonzos had performed in the Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour. Sadly, no footage survives of king commode and his expanding rubber band, but here are the Bonzos (more properly the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band) performing the song on the children’s TV programme Do Not Adjust Your Set with bonus footage of a young Michael Palin:

Thanks to the miracle of the internet, I have been able to find the exact date: a search on the band name led me to the website of none other than liver lips louis leach, now going under the more sedate handle of Richard Leach.

Richard is a now multi-award winning jazz player, still playing his trombone all around Europe. He was able to help me out:

Yes, I was on the Take-off gig at Watford Boys Grammar and can actually pinpoint the exact date for you, purely and simply because I remember one of our WGS friends who was compering the evening bounding on stage and announcing over the mic that ‘for those of you who are wondering what has happened at Vicarage Road this evening it has finished Watford 1 Southport…..lost’. I’ve just used ‘Mr. Google’ to learn that it was 1st April 1969, halcyon days for the Hornets that season as they won the Division 3 championship a few weeks later.

Thanks, Richard, for your amazing recall!  Richard was also kind enough to reach out, as we say, to the other band members to enable me to grow my knowledge of the band to an extent I previously could only have dreamed of:

A couple of the band have remembered that we played Hello Dolly, which I used to sing in a throaty, gravelled voice a la Louis Armstrong and also recalled that I used a tin of stage face-xxxxxxxx as well. You’d better not mention that in this day and age Rik otherwise I won’t be able to run for the President of Canada position again!! Apparently, John Jenkins, one of the production team on the show recorded it but wiped the tape clean thinking it really was Louis Armstrong. Blimey, I didn’t know I sounded that authentic.

There was definitely a lot of influence from the Bonzos, so it’s quite possible that we played ‘Jollity Farm’ (complete with all the animal noises), ‘Jazz, Delicious Hot, Disgusting Cold’ and ‘Mickey’s Son and Daughter’.

Paul Devonshire also remembers us playing ‘Rock Me Baby’ in ‘take-off’ featuring Chris Newman on guitar. Chris went on to play with Diz Disley, Stephane Grappelli and Fred Wedlock, even composing ‘The Oldest Swinger in Town’ for him.

martino g-string clarke has also followed the trend of simplifying his name, now preferring to be known as Martin Clarke.  Martin was able to add another nugget:

We did do our own version of “God Save the Queen” which broke out into Saints after everyone had got to their feet.

Thanks to the assistance I’ve had from Richard and other band members, I’m proud to provide a definitive list of the band that night:

Mark Sugden (trumpet & vocals)
Richard Entwistle (tenor sax)
Paul Devonshire (clarinet, alto sax & baritone sax)
Ralph Compton (clarinet)
Richard Leach (trombone)
Roger Hillier (piano)
Martin Clarke (banjo)
Chris Newman (guitar & bass guitar)
John Elliot (tuba)
Steve Stead (drums)

We’ll have to leave Roger Hillier and John Elliot to fight over which was beasley the bum and which was lord fantastic.  Or, possibly, finally lord fantastic.

reunion
Band 50-year reunion, July 2016. Ralph Compton on the left, top row Richard Bulman, Paul Devonshire, Richard Entwistle, John Elliot,  front row Mark Sugden, Martin Clarke, Richard Leach. 

Looking at this photo suggests to me that making music and having a laugh is not a bad recipe for life.  Perhaps the odd pint doesn’t hurt either.

I had no yardstick by which to measure the quality of the live music I heard that night, fifty years ago. But to my impressionable young ears, it was the best thing, ever.  Thank you guys.

R.I.P. Mark “Snake-hips” Sugden.

Dr Feelgood, Cambridge Corn Exchange – 25 September 1976

So, who were the godfathers of punk? Sixties bands like the Kinks, and the American garage bands which followed them proved that exciting records could be made with a modest level of skill. The Velvet Underground’s attitude and Iggy and the Stooges’ wild energy pointed the way – and David Bowie helped both to reach a wider audience. For me, though, punk started in 1975 when I first saw Dr Feelgood.

I had finished school in December 1974, and had nine months to fill before starting at Warwick. Many would have seen this as an opportunity to travel to Borneo, Peru, Thailand, anywhere. I went to work at the Department of Employment in Watford, where my most important learning was that I should not make my career in the civil service.

Although a huge fan of pop and rock music, I was finding very little to enjoy at the time: there was a sharp divide between “serious” artists who made albums, usually overlong and pretentious (rock bands like Led Zeppelin would never deign to issue a single), and “pop” artists, usually targeting the under 15s or the over 40s. The singles charts were dominated by the Bay City Rollers, the Drifters in their pop reincarnation, novelty records like Kenny’s The Bump, novelty acts like the Wombles. The Stones had gone soft, Bowie had gone funky. Thin times for a lover of rock’roll and high quality pop music.

During the early months of 1975 I was vegetating in front of the telly after “work” and a programme called The Geordie Scene came on. It was a short-lived but pacy thing: teenagers dancing in a studio, like Top of the Pops, introduced by a smarmy, facetious DJ, like Top of the Pops. This week’s show was given over to Dr Feelgood.

I was startled. Wilko Johnson marched back and forth on stage like one of the Shadows on speed, chopping at his guitar as if his life depended on it, trailing a long curly lead. Lee Brilleaux growled into his mic, a small time villain from a cop drama, forever sweating and loosening his collar and tie as if the excitement was a surprise to him. The music was fast, exciting, earthy. Completely out of sync with everything else that was popular, they were prophets come to lead us to a better future, or a better past, and I reached for them, a parched wanderer at an oasis. Someone else out there cared about the Coasters and Riot in Cell Block #9, and that made me happy.

The band took their name from a favourite track by Johnny Kidd & the Pirates, but it was also blues speak for a medical practitioner prepared to take a flexible view of his patients’ prescription needs.  Certainly, they could make you feel better than you should.

It was some time before I got to see them live, but a review in Melody Maker of the fabled Naughty Rhythms Tour (which they undertook with Chilli Willi & The Red Hot Peppers and Kokomo) stuck in my mind:

Dr Feelgood came out, played like a hurricane and the crowd went potty. This has happened every night of the tour.

Their records were enjoyable, but the band weren’t exceptional songwriters: they worked best live. So I visited my brother in Cambridge to catch them at last, and they didn’t disappoint: sixty minutes of uncompromising sweaty blast. The crowd did, indeed, go potty. I may have had a beer or two, and the details are a little fuzzy, but their set list would have been something like this:

I Can Tell
All through the City
Back in the Night
Roxette
Keep It Out of Sight
Goin’ Back Home
Walkin’ the Dog
I’m a Hog for You
Riot in Cell Block #9
Rollin’ and Tumblin’
She Does It Right
Bony Moronie / Tequila

Encore:

You Shouldn’t Call the Doctor (If You Can’t Afford the Bills)
Great Balls of Fire

Happy days!   By this stage the punk revolution they had heralded was well underway, and the tired old hippy bands who had held sway were about to be pushed into oblivion.

Here is a clip of the Feelgoods’ triumphant return to home territory at the Southend Kursaal in the same year. Skip the long intro: start about 1:10:

Enjoy!

Everly Brothers, Royal Albert Hall – Thursday 22 September 1983

On 14 July 1973 the Everly Brothers were playing a concert at Knott’s Berry Farm in Buena Park, California. Halfway through the show the venue booking agent stopped the show: Don Everly was clearly incapacitated, playing erratically and forgetting lyrics. In frustration, Phil smashed his guitar and announced their split, telling the crowd, “I’m tired of being an Everly brother… The Everly Brothers died ten years ago.” Years of touring as “has-beens” in the wake of the Beatles and the music revolution they triggered had taken their toll.

The rift lasted ten years. Don and Phil lived two thousand miles apart: Don in Nashville and Phil in L.A. They pursued separate careers, with very modest success. Their fans were deprived of hearing those sublime harmonies in concert.

But by the end of those ten years, they were no longer regarded as a clapped out relic of the rock’n’roll era, but as a revered musical treasure. Albert Lee, noted British guitarist, was a friend of each brother independently, and was able to effect a reconciliation. They agreed to put their differences aside and perform together again.

But where? Their popularity had endured longer into the 1960s in Britain than in the USA: and with all the world to choose from, they opted for London’s Royal Albert Hall – or Albert Hall, as Don called it on the night – where they had last performed on stage with their musical mentor, their father Ike, on 11 October 1971.

Much thought went into presentation, and it was decided to use the huge width of the stage for dramatic effect. The idea was that Phil should walk on from the left, and Don from the right, so their meeting in the middle would symbolise the reunion.
“Do you think they’ll get it?” asked the brothers. The reply came back from their British hosts “Are you nuts? They’ll go crazy!”

I was only one year old when they had their first hit, but I had discovered their music as a teenager through the rock’n’roll revival films of 1973, American Graffiti and That’ll be the Day. Also, I should admit, through a Radio One broadcast each Sunday, which played the records from the chart five, ten and fifteen years ago: so in 1972, the show was playing Everly hits from 1957. I owe much to this show, which also opened my ears to early Elvis, to Fats Domino, Eddie Cochran and many more. It was presented by a Mr Jimmy Savile.

So in my teenage years I became a voracious reader of any books I could obtain about 1950s rock’n’roll. These had been very thin on the ground but were now growing rapidly in number as the first generation of fans reached maturity, writing perceptively and entertainingly about the music while retaining their passion for it. I gobbled up pop music encyclopaedias – they could point me towards new treasures.

In the early 1970s my friends at school were getting off on Genesis, Yes, Emerson Lake and Palmer and the like: to me it seemed bombastic, self-important and overblown, plain boring. In reaction I reached back into the simpler times before the reign of the Beatles, and acquired greatest hits collections by Chuck Berry, Little Richard, the Arcade release of Elvis’s 40 greatest. Once I was caught by a classmate on Watford High Street holding a newly purchased copy of The World of Billy Fury. I’m pretty sure that shredded the last of any “cred” I might have had.

It hurts, when a favourite band breaks up, or when your heroes fall out with each other.
And when the Everlys’ concerts were announced, it was well known, not just that Don and Phil hadn’t performed together for ten years, but that in that time they’d barely even spoken to each other. So when, on Thursday 22 September 1983, Phil walked out from the left, Don walked out from the right, and they met in the middle of the stage and embraced, the audience, as predicted, went wild. They launched into a driving version of The Price of Love, and we were in the palms of their hands for the rest of the evening.

They sang their best known hits with a joyous freshness, each familiar song revealed anew. They also made time for an acoustic selection from Songs Our Daddy Taught Us, referencing their previous appearance at the venue.

I went with my cousin – another Phil – several years older than me, and able to remember the Everlys the first time round. If anyone tells you nostalgia ain’t what it used to be, they haven’t met Phil: he is capable of being nostalgic for lunch by teatime. But when the Everly Brothers completed an exquisite, tender version of All I Have To Do Is Dream, I had to admit that (cousin) Phil’s Welsh-accented roar of ecstatic approval was entirely appropriate.

Throughout the song the brothers looked at each other with an intense fondness. Singing close harmony of course requires them to keep each other in view, but this was something much more. The years of bitterness melted away as they rediscovered their love for each other, and their love for singing together. Two voices, no more than pleasant individually, coming together to produce something sublime. And we were there to witness this joyful reconciliation.

Led Zeppelin, Empire Pool, Wembley – 21 November 1971

Don’t worry, we only printed 18,000. Ticket from first night.

 Having a cool brother three years older than me was a blessing. It meant that despite being a nerdy coin-collecting teenager, I was exposed to some great music in our shared bedroom/games room in Chorleywood: besides the obvious Beatles and Stones stuff, I also heard the likes of Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Leonard Cohen, Julie Felix (quite a lot), King Crimson, and the latest rage at school, Led Zeppelin. So when I heard that they were to play Wembley Empire Pool (now Wembley Arena), this fifteen year old rock fan, who hadn’t yet been to a proper rock concert, didn’t hang about.

Consider this. Led Zeppelin had already released their first three albums to huge success, and their fourth – which included Stairway to Heaven – was about to complete their world conquest. The tickets were 75p – seventy-five fucking p! – fifteen shillings as it would have been a year earlier.

Ah but, you say, that was a lot of money in those days, counting inflation and everything. Well no, not really. At the time I was doing a paper round – remember those? – which earned me £1.50 a week. It wasn’t a difficult decision to blow half a week’s pay to see Led Zep. Back then bands priced their tickets for pocket money: by contrast an album cost a princely £1.99. Bit of a turnaround in relative prices since then.

I was with Martin King, much cooler than I. It was the second of two gigs at the venue: the first date on Saturday (which my brother attended) had sold out in less than an hour, and they added a Sunday date. I remember my excitement being slightly overshadowed by the anticipation of school the next day, probably intensified because I still had a history essay due in.

The show was billed as “Electric Magic”, an ambitious concept: as well as support from raunchy blues rockers Stone the Crows featuring Maggie Bell, there were circus acts, performing pigs (!) and all kinds of weird shit. I don’t remember that stuff making much impact, we just wanted the band.

Boy was it worth the wait. They came on and tore into Immigrant Song. It was electrifying: I had never heard anything like it, and somehow by the end of their first song tears had welled up from sheer excitement and joy. I remember the whole show being terrific: pulsating rock music and world class posturing and screaming from Robert Plant, with perhaps just a couple of longueurs provided by a lengthy Jimmy Page guitar solo and the even lengthier drum solo. Martin bought a can of warm lager and banged his head in time: my eyes were glued to the stage, as I drank orangeade and politely tapped my foot.

Their set list was something like this:

Immigrant Song
Heartbreaker
Black Dog
Since I’ve Been Loving You
Rock and Roll
Stairway to Heaven
Going to California
That’s the Way
Tangerine
Bron-y-Aur Stomp
Dazed and Confused
Celebration Day
What Is and What Should Never Be
Moby Dick
Whole Lotta Love (with blues medley)

and for the encore

Communication Breakdown

Someone smuggled in their cassette recorder, and amazingly you can access a recording of the whole performance – albeit with atrocious sound quality – here:

I wouldn’t want to listen to all of it, but Immigrant Song at the start still gives me goosebumps. You never forget your first gig, and mine happened to be one of the greats of rock music at their peak. I didn’t know how lucky I was at the time. But I sure had fun.