Lockdown Diary: part 1

 

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Debbie and I are relatively lucky. We are retired but still under 65, so not in the highest risk category, although our daughter Alice has Type 1 Diabetes. We are not health workers on the front line, daily facing the danger and stress of dealing with victims of COVID-19. We haven’t been laid off from work without pay: we’re not self-employed workers forced to suspend trade: we’re not wondering how we can meet our next rent payment. We don’t live in closely packed housing where distancing is impossible. I’m not confined on my own, contemplating an indefinite period without company. Our house is large enough that we can get away from each other when we need to, and we have a garden to sit in when the weather is good. I understand that the Coronavirus crisis will be much more difficult for many other people, and offer this diary well aware that we are (we hope) experiencing this crisis at the shallow end.

Monday 23 March 2020 – Day 0

We are all at home: our younger daughter Alice still lives with us, and out older daughter Rachel, working from home, has decided she would rather be in rural Chorleywood than in her flat with friends in north London. Choose your prison with care, we said, you may be there a long time. So it feels quite jolly, having the four of us together, and after eating beef casserole for dinner (with chips as I couldn’t find normal spuds) Debbie catches the holiday mood by setting a fire in the garden, and we go out and toast marshmallows around the camp fire after dinner.

We’re not normally a family for watching political broadcasts, but this one was going to be important. I turn on the TV a little early, to be assailed by the closing minutes of Eastenders, but soon it is 8:30, and Boris Johnson appears on screen. He could not have known that his Winston Churchill moment would come so soon.

As we watch, Alice comments that she feels like we are watching history, that this speech will be remembered and recycled as if it were wartime. Time will tell whether Johnson turns out the Chamberlain or the Churchill of this war: our view is that he is doing his best to appear serious and statesmanlike, but that he is acting a role, rather than living it. His attempt at gravitas is undercut by his track record of flippancy – a jokey comment seems likely to emerge at any time. But he is fortunate in that people will compare him with Donald Trump, whose response to the crisis has been to try to dismiss the problem, to brag about his TV ratings, to paint the virus as a Chinese (or Democrat) plot and to insult journalists who ask him questions.

To someone who has spent over sixty years in the relative calm of post-war Britain, what Johnson says is astonishing. The December election seems a very long time ago now, but imagine we had been told that by March, Johnson would announce that people would be confined to their homes except for very limited purposes: moreover, the opposition would think he should have acted sooner and gone further.

We agree that when normality resumes, we would like to look back on the lockdown period and celebrate what we have enjoyed, and what we have achieved, rather than just bemoaning lost holidays, gigs, theatre trips and family visits. With this in mind, we go online to order deliveries of materials for redecorating both girls’ bedrooms. I’ll let you know how that goes. This burst of plan-making raises our spirits, and we go to bed in a positive mood.

 

Tuesday 24 March – Day 1

This is going to be a long haul. Debbie has a rare personality quirk that results in her sometimes finding me extremely annoying, and I don’t fancy my chances being stuck with her for a long period in a house where a meat cleaver is to hand. So often do I express this unease, the predictive text on my iPad now automatically offers the word “cleaver” to follow “meat”. I spread the word in the hope that if it is later said, for example, that I died when my meat-cleaver juggling act went tragically wrong, you will treat that version of events with scepticism.

We need some shopping: milk, meat, bread. Normally I’m happy to let Debbie do the shopping, but of course now that it’s deemed dangerous I realise it’s man’s work. So I head down to the village, and the parking is a joy. The butchers’ shop has a sign limiting entry to three customers at a time, and two men stand outside on the pavement, two meters apart. That’s what a queue looks like now, and I join it. An elderly couple stroll past, arm in arm, in a leisurely paseo taking in the atmosphere, making no attempt to move further from the queue.

When I get in the shop I eye three medium sized chickens on the counter, and ask if they have a larger one. The lad goes out to the back and brings out a huge chicken. I’m tempted to stand there and buy more meat while I can, but that would be unpatriotic. I will already be greeted as a hero when I arrive home with the chicken – no need to overdo it.

The pharmacy is a smaller shop, and limited to one customer at a time: there’s no queue, I pick up the prescription and leave. The Co-op is much busier, with customers carefully manoeuvring their trolleys around each other, apart from one workman in a grey tracksuit who seemed to be doing a random walk up and down, and a woman keeping no distance at all, nearly barging people’s shoulders as she swept past.

It is another beautiful day, and we’re relieved that we can still take the dog for a walk. Betty can take some credit for inventing Social Distancing: ever since she came to us in November she has operated a two metre exclusion zone, sometimes two hundred metres.   Perhaps it’s her mission to protect us from friendly bouncy dogs.  She’s one grumpy lady, and I fear she will never be trusted off the leash when other dogs are around.

Betty

With the four of us sitting on the patio having lunch, it’s hard to feel the air of crisis. Having endured an extremely wet and windy winter, it feels particularly good to sit in the warm spring sunshine. As Debbie and I are retired, we’re accustomed to sometimes pottering around at home doing bits and pieces, so it just feels like a day with an empty diary. But there are quite a few of those at the moment. Hard to believe that we were rubbing shoulders with 3,500 other people at the Hammersmith Apollo enjoying Elvis Costello just eleven days ago. We shouldn’t have gone, and we shouldn’t have been allowed to go. Or that just eight days ago I was enjoying an eight mile walk and pub lunch with the U3A walking group.

The only change in routine is having Rachel home. Perhaps this is the phoney war, and long may it last. If the lockdown continues for a long time, we might start to see shortages of food, power cuts, water supply problems, and phone and network outages. And we’ve read about the pop-up hospitals and temporary morgues in Spain and Italy.

I read an encouraging article in the Financial Times quoting an epidemiologist from the University of Oxford suggesting that Coronavirus might already have infected 50% of the population, so the epidemic might be much nearer its peak – and therefore its decline – that we had thought. Unfortunately this study has not yet been peer reviewed, and Rachel tells us that the assumptions made there about the spread and lethality of the virus had not been borne out by the experience in Lombardy.

We should have been seeing The Upstart Crow in the West End tonight starring David Mitchell.  But here’s no comfort like an old movie, so we settle down to enjoy the goofy charm of Jimmy Stewart in The Shop Around The Corner before retiring to bed.
Wednesday 25 March – Day 2

Another beautiful sunny day. My turn to take Betty out first thing, and bring the coffees back to bed. After breakfast I go for a nice easy paced run along the Chess valley from Chorleywood House to Latimer. The scenery is beautiful as ever, but it’s still very muddy underfoot, and at one point I slip once then slip again while trying to regain my footing, and fall slow-motion on my hands and knees in the mud. Luckily I’m not injured, and I look around for grass to wipe my hands clean, but spot baby nettles lurking amongst it. I complete the run, and when I get home Debbie consoles me with “Ooh, you’ve had a fall, dear.”

In the afternoon Rachel goes out for a walk/run, using episode 1 of a couch-to-10k podcast. I really hope she keeps it up.

In the news a couple of business leaders have kept up their track records of never missing an opportunity to be a git. Tim Martin of the JD Wetherspoon pub chain, having argued unsuccessfully that he should be allowed to keep his pubs open because his customers (many of whom are elderly) were not at risk, is now defying a government request that businesses should continue to pay their staff while they are closed, instead recommending that they should seek work with Tesco’s. Meanwhile Mike Ashley’s Sports Direct chain has argued that their stores should remain open as an essential service, because exercise has been recommended, and you can’t go for a run without an Arsenal away strip.

I try to get my head around how the COVID-19 episode might change things permanently. To start the ball rolling, here are some predictions which will probably look ridiculous in a couple of years time:

– newspaper print circulations will fall dramatically in the short term as the older demographic stays indoors. Newsagents have been deemed “essential” – perhaps because Johnson’s government has such dependable allies in the tabloid press – but it is a brave pensioner who will make a daily trip to the shops if his delivery is suspended. My guess is that many of these older readers will get used to consuming their news online, and will not go back to printed newspapers when normal conditions resume – accelerating the decline of the paper press. There may be some wishful thinking in this forecast: I for one would not miss the toxic influence of The Sun, The Daily Mail and The Daily Express.

– businesses will become accustomed to their staff working from home, and will gain more experience of which employee tasks can be performed remotely: this will make them more willing to allow their staff to work from home. But employees should be wary of celebrating this new freedom: in the long term, pay will be lower for home workers because of their lower expenses and greater convenience, and because of the larger pool of potential recruits. And of course, what can be done remotely in Britain can be done from anywhere in the world, which could lead to further outsourcing. We may see offices becoming much smaller.

– there will be a running and fitness boom. Boris Johnson gave us permission for one outing a day for exercise – with the option of walking, running or cycling – and no doubt this has made people feel they should claim their entitlement, and put the idea of exercise into their heads. Instead of fretting about what they can’t do, some people will think about what they can do, like prisoners exercising to keep fit. Of course many will get bored and give up, but as a keen runner, I hope that a good number of the people now exiled from gyms will discover the joy of running and cycling outdoors, and will never look back.

– as soon as they reopen charity shops will be hit by a tsunami of stuff that people are throwing out: so many people are using the time to declutter and deep clean.

 

Thursday 26 March – Day 3

We spot a couple of roe deer in the front garden when we wake up. I imagine we will see many wildlife pictures in the coming weeks, when foxes and birds of prey start to encroach on normally busy city streets.

Roe

We walk Betty through the woods on a favourite route which usually takes us to the wonderful Muddy Boots cafe at the garden centre. Alas, not today. A man runs past who looks to me either a beginner, or a lapsed runner taking the opportunity to get back to fitness. Good luck to him, I hope he stays the course. But the malicious part of me pictures him in six weeks’ time in his pyjamas at 3pm, sporting a straggly beard, eating baked beans out of the tin.

Alice gets up so early today that she has time to eat breakfast a good hour before lunchtime: house rules therefore allow us to share a can of Heineken with lunch, taken on the patio in the sun again.

All kinds of fun diversions have sprung up in the first few days of lockdown: online quizzes, virtual dinner parties, free opera and theatre streaming, a bird watching challenge. One friend whom I meet for lunch about once a year called me on FaceTime to catch up, and must have been amused to watch me fumbling with the technology. I see numerous posts of people cleaning their houses, and launching energetically into new projects.

Go for it guys, all great ideas. But I’ve seen it before in the first mile of a marathon: runners high-fiving spectators, whooping, leaping in the air for photographers. It’s a long haul people, pace yourselves.

At eight o’clock I go out from dinner and toot the car horn in recognition and thanks for the health workers, but then think I perhaps showed my appreciation in the wrong way, and should have banged a wooden spoon on a saucepan in the approved style. We live in a country lane, it doesn’t have the acoustics of a block of flats, but I still could hear the sound from several places.

 

Friday 27 March – Day 4

A beautiful run through the countryside to Amersham and back, but I regret the choice of route: there are constrained narrow footpaths where I have to wait for walkers to clear before I can pass at a safe distance.  I won’t use that route again for a while.

We do our Tesco online delivery shop: we booked a slot for tomorrow morning two weeks ago. We hit eighty items limit: it sounds like plenty, but as there are no deliveries available for three weeks and venturing out is hazardous, it does make sense to try to stock up a bit. Quite a few things are unavailable, but not bad considering.

My cousin Phil has been having a declutter, and has sent through a few old photos he has come across. Not that we’re bored at all, but we decide to recreate one from March 1997, and it goes down a storm on Facebook.  They’re probably indulging me, I guess it looks like I’m going crazy already.


I’m trying to read His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet,

His bloody project

(those prints are part of the design, honest) but struggle to settle to it: Coronavirus has us all in a state of anxiety, and I keep flicking through the latest news on my iPad. This afternoon it is announced that Boris Johnson has tested positive, but has mild symptoms.  We wish him a speedy recovery, of course, but it’s tempting to conclude that he hasn’t himself been following the guidance he’s been giving out. That would be classic Boris, rules are for other people. He’s soldiering on though, so no need to panic.

One positive I’ve noticed is that since the crisis began, my email inbox is markedly better quality.  Among the messages from businesses I haven’t used in two years telling me how they’re looking after me in these unprecedented times, there are many more messages from people I care about.  Quite a few concern cancelled plans, of course, and maybe some just wonder if I’m still alive.  But the extra contact is welcome.

After dinner Debbie and I sit down with wine and Doritos and join a video conference with our monthly poker group. After a bit of fiddling with and giggling about the technology, the conversation is lively and entertaining, and a welcome piece of social interaction. No poker though.  The big feature tomorrow is the Tesco delivery.  Woo hoo!

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.)

Gaukey and Me (part 2)

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.

.

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

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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.

A brush with greatness

Sir David Attenborough, English broadcaster and naturalist, at his home in Richmond, Borough of Richmond upon Thames, England UK

In 2012 I attended a ceremony on 12 May in London celebrating Edward Lear’s

bicentenary, when a plaque was unveiled in Stratford Place.
plaque

Later there was an event at the nearby Fine Art Society, where there were a few short speeches about Lear, and where some of his work could be viewed.  Among the small crowd was Sir David Attenborough.  I’m useless at recognising celebrities, but there was no mistaking him.  His benign aura filled the room.  Here he was an observer, not a speaker: he has said he first became acquainted as a child with Lear through The Owl and the Pussycat, but later was entranced by Lear’s exquisite bird drawings and paintings, which were much valued by naturalists before the age of photography.  Sir David had become a collector of nature prints, and especially prized Lear’s work.

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(The day ended with a wreath laying at Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey, where Roger McGough was to read How Pleasant to Know Mr Lear.  However, he showed up late.  “Have I missed it?”  “Yes Roger, you have.”)

When I told my father of my A-list celebrity spotting, he wanted to know whether I’d asked Sir David whether his father had ever taught at Granby Street school in Liverpool.  Of course I hadn’t, I knew nothing about this.  Dad explained that his parents – before they married – were both colleagues of David’s father Fred at the school in 1912, and was able to produce a photograph showing them all. Apparently my Taid had been good friends with Fred, and had gone with him on at least one holiday.

I wished that I had known this at the Fine Art Society, but all was not lost.  I wrote to Sir David to ask whether it was indeed true that his father had taught at Granby Street, and to my delight he sent a short handwritten letter confirming that this was so.

I attended a Bicentennial Conference in Oxford in September, so I took a couple of photographs with me in case he should turn up.  The first day passed pleasantly enough with several academics – I thought – over-analysing Lear’s nonsense: but it was after all an academic conference, and the robust joy in Lear’s writing survived the intellectual bombardment.

But on the afternoon of the second day, there was a talk on Lear’s bird illustrations, and Sir David was there.  Everyone in the room tried to carry on as normal, but every so often eyes would dart back to take him in one more time.  He made a couple of insightful contributions.

At tea break he was sitting with a woman who I took to be a secretary or family member.  I steeled myself: he probably gets very bored with being accosted by strangers, though presumably most are well meaning.  But I needn’t have worried: as soon as I approached the great man and drew his attention to the photograph, he beamed with pleasure, and pointed out his father.

Teachers at Granby Street School, Liverpool
Fred is standing at the top right.  My grandfather Bob is standing, fourth from the left, and my grandmother Maggie is seated second from the left: they married three years later.
And in person he was everything you would have expected, and hoped, from his TV appearances: courteous, eyes twinkling with enthusiasm, and completely charming.  He said that he had recently received the same photo in the post, and I said yes, my father had sent him a batch of them, which my cousins David and Susan – custodians of our grandfather’s album – had carefully prepared.  He said he was really grateful to receive them, as he had very few pictures of his father from his early years, and indeed, sent my Dad a lovely thank you note.
Attenborough note001
He had even offered to pay, but really, who sends him an invoice?  And he might have found some of the photos revealing.  On Desert Island Discs earlier the same year he had described his father as demanding and formidable, but some of the photographs might have surprised him, showing Fred as they did in lighter mood.
Sacrifice of Fred, at Port Mulgrave
The sacrifice of Fred
The expression ‘national treasure’ is much overused, but without doubt applies to Attenborough.  Some say you should never meet your heroes.  Nonsense.  I feel so privileged to have had the opportunity.

Fall of the House of

Early in 2005, a US investment bank, aware of my role trading and retailing building society debt, invited me to a 7am breakfast meeting in their docklands office.  I was not accustomed to such an early start, and my spirits sank further as I stepped out of the station into the vast bleak windswept square.  Once inside, the lift – elevator – rose silently, high into the gleaming building. I was shown into a meeting room with wood panelling and oil-painted landscapes: an unconvincing attempt to recreate an English country house interior in the docklands clouds.
There was indeed a breakfast: fresh croissants, bowls of perfect fruit, pains au chocolat.  I was also offered a breakfast cooked to order.  Though tempted, I declined: if the meeting might contain an element of negotiation, I was reluctant to incur even a small obligation to my hosts.  And it is difficult to look professional while eating a banana or trailing flakes of croissant.  The younger of my hosts looked disappointed, and might briefly have considered going it alone.

The man who had invited me was enthusiastic and knowledgeable: he was looking to create a new market for building society bonds, and wanted to know if I could help. He said he had societies willing to issue bonds on a 5.5% to 6% yield: could I help find buyers for the stock at this level?

At the time, similar bonds were freely available on yields of 6.5% to 7% in the market. So I couldn’t see why investors would accept a lower yield on his new issues: I told him that I would give the matter further thought, but that I might struggle to help with this deal, given the gap between the issuers’ requirements and the potential investors’ yield expectation. I returned to my secondary market business.

They didn’t need my help.  In September 2005, the bank announced their new bond issue: a £200m fundraising for Britannia Building Society, later to be taken over (or rescued) by the Co-operative Bank. The coupon was set, with spurious precision, at 5.5555%. Long dated UK government bonds – regarded by investors as virtually risk free – yielded about 4% at the time, and the 1.5555% extra yield on the Britannia bond did not seem to me to offer nearly enough compensation for the extra risk.  Given yield levels in the market, I could not imagine who would have bought this on such a fine margin.

The stock traded briefly above its issue price, before it began a steady descent, with further downward impetus provided by the failures of Northern Rock in 2008, and thereafter troubles at Co-operative Bank itself – substantially caused by the legacy of its acquisition of Britannia – to eventually reach a low of 33% of its issue price. This strengthened my suspicion that the deal had never been right, and that the buyers – whoever they were – had been ripped off.

It is possible that some traditional investment institutions bought the stock at issue, if they weren’t appraised of current market levels.  But more likely, the bank would have put most of the stock into specially created investment vehicles, packaged them into opaque parcels with names like “Innovative Guaranteed Bonds, Series 3”, paid a fat fee to a pliant “independent” agency to hastily stamp it with an impressive looking credit rating, and sold them out to credulous investors.

The beauty of this process is that it enables the bank to book multiple fees, and – provided that they sell all the paper on – offload all their exposure to the overpriced bond issue.  Of course, the poor quality of what they are selling is likely to damage their customer relationships over time, but the greater immediate risk is that they fail to sell all the paper, and end up exposed to their own bad deal.

Whether that happened in this case I couldn’t say, but the bank in question was Lehman Brothers, which was to crash spectacularly in 2008. I will admit to finding it reassuring to see that, just occasionally, banks which create bad deals can reap a bitter harvest.

 

Richard Fuld of Lehman Brothers

Gaukey and Me (part 1)

David Gauke - UK Parliament official portraits 2017

 

In 2008 I made the winning bid at a charity auction in aid of the Watford Peace Hospice – tea or coffee for two at the House of Commons with David Gauke, at the time serving his first term as our local MP, now Lord Chancellor, if you please.  My fourteen year old daughter was starting to take an interest in politics, so she was happy to come as my plus one.

We cleared the heavy security, and were taken in to meet Mr Gauke.  A relaxed but slightly awkward conversation ensued, typical, I imagine, of the occasions when a politician is fulfilling his charitable commitments.  He sought confirmation that the Peace Hospice was a worthy charity to support, and I agreed – my mother had been a satisfied customer the previous year.

David Cameron had become Conservative leader early in the parliament, promising an end to “Punch and Judy politics” but within a few weeks PMQs had descended into the usual juvenile knockabout.  I asked about this: he replied that if politics was too civilised and consensual, the public might lose interest.  I thought I’d be willing to give it a try.

I raised the issue I felt most strongly about: the Iraq war.  His predecessor as our MP, also a Conservative, had voted against it, and I asked Gauke for his views.  He said given the information available at the time, he would have voted for the invasion.  I wasn’t sure whether he was being bravely honest or misguided: by now, in the messy aftermath, the consensus view was that the war had been a dreadful mistake.  It would have been easy for him to adopt a safer opinion retrospectively.

At this point the waiter managed to spill a decent quantity of coffee into my lap.  Fortunately it wasn’t scalding, but I still wonder whether this was in response to a prearranged signal.

As we were coming away, my daughter pointed out that what was available at the time of the Iraq war wasn’t information, it was misinformation and outright lies.  Good point.  I wish she’d said that to him, but she was a little overawed by the occasion.

We requested gallery tickets for the afternoon session in the Commons, and he came to get them for us.  He looked deflated when the official behind the counter had to ask for his name, the new kid in class.

We watched David Cameron score points with ominous ease against Gordon Brown in a routine debate, then I attempted to reward my daughter after a slightly heavy day with a trip to the London Aquarium, but we were the first people turned away at closing time.  My souvenir of the day was a miniature House of Commons wine bottle, which adorned our mantelpiece for years, festooned with drunken Kermit.

I have the gift of a memorable face, and Gauke recognised me on the Common a few weeks later.  We noted that we would have to agree to differ on the matter of Iraq.

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

Sathi’s Indian Restaurant in Chorleywood decided a few years ago to address the problem of takeaway customers hovering over their dining clientele by adding a separate waiting room where they could present customers with a lager to ease the boredom of their wait.

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After the Brexit vote, in a gesture of defiance I purchased an EU tee shirt with the yellow stars on a blue field, and wore it when I went to pick up our meal.  And there he was with his son, collecting a takeaway like a normal person.  He nodded and raised his eyebrows when he saw my shirt.  I said I was unsure about wearing it, but he assured me that I should be all right in Chorleywood, maybe not to wear it in South Oxhey.  “So”, I said, “are you guys going to sort this out?”  He smiled ruefully.  He was fully aware how horribly Cameron’s gamble had backfired.

As I write he is one of the few (relatively) moderate and pragmatic politicians who might help save Britain from a disastrous no-deal Brexit.  Or better still, cancel the whole stupid idea.  Cometh the hour, cometh the man, they say.  And who knows, before long St James’s Park might be reborn as Gaukey Park in his honour.  I can hope.

A Guide To Completing Your Wimbledon Public Ballot Application Form

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It’s the time of year for filling in your Wimbledon ballot application form.  Forms can be nasty and complicated, but we’re here to help you.

Don’t worry, you don’t have to use that scary interweb thing.  You can’t apply online, no sir.  We prefer to attempt to transpose your spidery lettering into our creaking old computers ourselves – we find it leads to fewer mistakes.  You can’t even print your application form from the interweb.  What we’d like you to do, please, is write your address on a large envelope, put a stamp on it, and put it inside another, larger envelope,  (or you could fold the first envelope if you prefer, to make it smaller, so that it fits inside the second envelope) put another stamp on the outside envelope, and send it to us.  Then we’ll send you a form.

When you get the form, please carefully follow these steps:

1) Please enter your surname in the boxes marked “Surname”.  Even if it’s a weird surname like “Smiths”.

2) Please indicate your title in one of the boxes marked Mr, Mrs, Ms or Miss.  If you’re a Dr, sorry.  If you’re a Mx, try again, in about fifty years.

3) Please enter your initials in the boxes marked “Initials”.

4) Please enter your Christian first name in the boxes marked “First Name”.

5) Please enter your telephone number in the boxes marked “Tel. No.”

Note: “Tel. No.” is a commonly used abbreviation for “Telephone Number”.

6) Please enter your post code in the boxes marked “Post Code”.

7) If you live in a house with a number, please enter your house number in the boxes marked “House No.”.  We have provided sufficient boxes for any street number up to 999,999. Or 99,999A.  Or even 99,999Z.  Leave out the commas, though.

8) If you live in a flat with a number, please enter your flat number in the boxes marked “Flat No.”.  We have provided sufficient boxes for any flat number up to 999,999,999, so there will be room for your number unless your block of flats is large enough to accommodate the population of China, with a separate flat for every man, woman and child.

9) If you live in a house with a name, stuff you, you middle class git.  Your sort isn’t welcome at Wimbledon.

10) Please enter your address in the boxes marked “Address”.  Please do not use abbreviations.  If you write “Gloucs” instead of “Gloucestershire” we won’t have a clue what you’re talking about.

11) Please enter your signature in the box marked “Signature”.

12) Please enter the date in the box marked “Date”.

13) Please POST your form to: AELTC, PO Box 67611, London, SW19 9DT.  This is best achieved by putting your Public Ballot Application Form in an envelope, writing the address on the FRONT of the envelope, and putting a postage stamp on the TOP RIGHT HAND corner of the envelope.

14) If you are successful in applying for tickets, you must use the tickets yourself.  Both of them.  One for you, one for your bag.

We hope you find these instructions helpful.  Our experience is that tennis fans really aren’t very bright.  Champagne and strawberries anyone?

Best

The All England Lawn Tennis Club

but actually

The All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club Limited

and to be honest, we prefer croquet.  Nasty, noisy game, tennis.

Postscript 9 September 2019. Good heavens, did someone actually read this? Here is the new procedure as of this year:

https://www.wimbledon.com/en_GB/tickets/the_wimbledon_public_ballot.html

THE GRILL PAN HANDLE

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Three days after my wife and I moved into our first house together, the previous owner arrived unannounced at the front door.  He was a confident young barrister with a wife who was heavily pregnant: an aspirational couple, which no doubt influenced our decision to buy the house at the top of an overheated market.

I was upstairs when my wife opened the door, but I had no difficulty in hearing him, as he declared his business in his best courtroom voice.  He went through a few loose ends arising from the house purchase before producing with a flourish an object for us from his bag.

“AND THIS…IS THE GRILL PAN HANDLE”

Of course.  It must, we thought, be often the fate of the humble grill pan handle to be separated from its parent grill pan: the grill pan stays in the oven and is going nowhere, while the handle is sent on its travels with the other contents of the utensils drawer. You’d think removals people would get used to that one.  Anyway, we gratefully accepted it and saw it happily reunited with its parent.  But the manner of its return stayed with us, and for some years our kitchen would resound to dialogue like:

“Please could you pass the GRILL PAN HANDLE” and

“Have you seen the GRILL PAN HANDLE?” and

“I put it to the court, M’lud, that this is the GRILL PAN HANDLE.”

Ours was a terraced house, and the lady the other side of the shared wall worked as a journalist on the Evening Standard.  I couldn’t comment on the quality of her research, but one day we did notice an article headed The ten biggest causes of marital rows.  Grill Pan Handles was right there at number three after money and sex.

A few years later, the anticipation and excitement felt on the approach of the year 2000 was qualified by fear of what the millennium bug might wreak on us: missile defence systems would be accidentally triggered and cause nuclear war, supermarkets would run out of yoghurt, etc.  In the event, thankfully, the bug turned out rather a damp squib, although it was reported that in two states of Australia bus ticket validation machines failed to operate.

But this rare turning of the year didn’t pass without an epic moment.  Just hours before the new millennium dawned, my brother phoned.  His family had moved house a few days earlier, and he had called me to report that the previous owner had just called round…to drop off the GRILL PAN HANDLE.  Or perhaps just the grill pan handle.  I don’t recall which, it was eighteen years ago.

Fact Check: How to Hug

chambers-encyclopedia-10-vol-set-1868_1_b9821243c86564abe1a2349cedbffa9f

Statements: A man took a book out of the library called How to Hug.  It turned out to be volume seven of the encyclopaedia.

These statements have been widely circulated.  But are they true?

I realised they required investigation when it occurred to me that in reality a library was unlikely to allow a user to borrow a volume of an encyclopaedia: surely this would render the set useless as a reference tool if, for example, a researcher were then to arrive in urgent need of information about Huchown c. 1375, the mediaeval poet presumed to have been Scottish.  Already the scenario seemed unconvincing, and in need of rigorous testing.

The question I needed to answer was this: if there was indeed a volume of an encyclopaedia labelled How to Hug, what number might it be in the set?  Would it really be volume seven?  Fortunately I was well placed to research this, having a genuine traditional bound 14-volume (plus an index volume) encyclopaedia in the house: Chambers’s (yes, s’s) Encyclopaedia (1965) (reprinted with corrections 1970).

This set uses the same convention of markers on the spines to identify the coverage in each volume, although Chambers’s uses four-letter markers.  The entry for Howard, Catherine (the first entry beginning with How) comes on page 270 (coincidentally, of volume 7) and the entry for Huguenots (the final entry beginning with Hug) comes on page 284, 14 pages later.  There are a total of 5,281 pages in the set before the entry for Howard, Catherine.

Let us assume that Chambers’s Encyclopaedia has a typical alphabetical distribution of articles in an English language set.  Then if each preceding volume was similar in size to How to Hug, the How to Hug volume would be approximately number 377 in the series.  Furthermore there are a total of 11,652 numbered pages in the Chambers set: extrapolating this gives an estimated figure of some 832 volumes in a set for which How to Hug makes up an entire volume.

If these volumes were to be of any substance, and not mere 14-page pamphlets, this encyclopaedia would dwarf the French Encyclopédie (published 1751-1772) which contained a mere 35 volumes, although it might still be a lightweight next to the Chinese Yongle Encyclopaedia (1403-1408), which ran to 11,095 volumes.

Conclusion:  FALSE.  While it is quite possible that the section containing How to Hug might be a part of volume 7 of a 14-volume set, for the statement to be true of a single volume, it would need to be approximately number 377 of an 832-volume set. Furthermore it seems very unlikely that any competent librarian would allow piecemeal borrowing from such a large reference set.

As a postscript it is worth noting that history was not always kind either to Howard, Catherine, or to the Huguenots.  One can imagine the subject of either article needing a hug at some time.

Running and Cheating

Coe and Ovett

I love running, and the history of my race times for 10k’s, half-marathons, marathons and other random distances is all laid out through the internet, should anyone care. I’ve entered many races, and from time to time found myself unable to run due to injury, or with some clashing engagement. Sometimes you may be able to return your number to the organiser, who, perhaps for a small fee, can reassign it to another runner at your direction. But frequently this is not allowed, or the deadline to do this has expired. So it seems harmless enough, charitable even, to simply give your number unofficially to another runner – after all, the race may be sold out. And half marathons can cost upwards of £30 to enter.

But if you give your number to a slower runner, you’ll get a disappointing time against your name. Worse, if they are faster, you’ll get a great time which you haven’t earned, of which you’re not capable, and may have to face the congratulations or suspicions of fellow runners who notice it. My running history shows a wide range of performance stretching from poor to average. But it is mine, and it is true. This is why I have never given away my race number, or taken over anyone else’s. I don’t want to be a cheat. In a world of bullshit, some things should be kept pure.

But it’s easy to say that when nothing depends on my performance besides personal pride. At the elite end of the field, if an athlete can summon just a 1% improvement in his or her time – perhaps using performance enhancing drugs or blood doping – that translates to the length of the home straight in the 10,000 metres. That could easily be the difference between gold and fourth. We shouldn’t be surprised that athletes and their trainers are prepared to break the rules in pursuit of glory.

The athletics heroes of my (relative) youth were Sebastian Coe and Steve Ovett, who presided over a golden age of British middle-distance running in the late 1970s and early 1980s: between them they won three Olympic gold medals, two silvers and one bronze. They broke a total of seventeen world records in the 800 metres, mile and 1500 metres.

In his fascinating book on the rivalry between these two athletes, ‘The Perfect Distance’, Pat Butcher attempts to address the suspicions which Coe and Ovett inevitably attracted with their astounding performances. This is what Coe said:

‘I used to hear those rumours: “Oh, he goes to Switzerland, to Italy, for his blood.” I used to laugh it off, and Steve [Mitchell] and Malcolm [Williams] were mainly with me in Switzerland. I’m afraid it’s the sadness of sport. This is where you’ve got to be so careful about pointing fingers at people making big breakthroughs, because only in public terms is it a big breakthrough. In reality, you’ve been slogging away, mile after mile, weight after weight, ten years at a time.’

Not quite a denial, is it? Here is Ovett’s take:

‘I suppose when we were knocking records off left, right and centre people must have thought, What the hell’s going on here with these two? But I can put my hand on my heart, and on my children’s lives, that I never took an aspirin or a paracetamol at any stage in my career. I was frightened to death of doing a thing like that, and I’m very proud that I didn’t. So, you know, they can say what they like because I know the true facts.’

When read literally, despite the chilling decision to involve his children, this statement falls short of being a complete denial of taking performance enhancing drugs, and doesn’t address blood doping at all. The truth about drugs may be that they themselves don’t know: it would make sense to employ a ‘don’t ask’ policy with their scientists and nutritionists to enable them to believe themselves clean. However, it is unlikely that blood doping – which involves removing a pint of blood about a month before the event, then reintroducing it before race time to supercharge performance – could have taken place without their knowledge. I’d like to believe that Coe and Ovett were clean: they were my heroes. But their statements do not dispel the doubt.

Nor is cheating confined to the elite. There have been many instances, for example, of lesser mortals – often running for charities – cheating in the London Marathon: participants who, for example, run the first half in about two hours, only to then disappear from the timing mats until they are pictured beaming with their medal at the finish line at a time suggesting they ran the second half in near world record time. Typically they have simply turned left after crossing Tower Bridge and killed a little time before sauntering over the finish line.

Since the modern London Marathon began in 1981, one of the most regular celebrity runners – and now the most notorious – was the predatory and prolific sex offender, broadcaster Jimmy Savile.  He claimed to have run hundreds of marathons.  Before and after his death, and posthumous disgrace, there was much speculation in the running community about whether he had really done so, or whether he had cheated, perhaps by taking rides between photo opportunities.  Some runners offered anecdotal evidence of having overtaken him several times during the race while he had never passed them in return.

Jimmy Savile

Of course, set against his many serious crimes, this matters not at all.  But I found the question wouldn’t go away, and until recently, to answer it would require more research than I had time or energy for: the London Marathon results for the early years were confined to dusty libraries and ancient newspaper listings.

 

But a while ago the organisers of the London Marathon created a results database to celebrate the first one million finishers of the London Marathon, and it became possible to search online all results since the race was founded.  This has enabled me to carry out the research with the economy of effort better suited to a marathon runner.  So here it is.

Jimmy Savile’s London Marathon Times
Year Age Time
1981 54 4.08.28
1982 55 3.46.23
1983 56 3.33.59
1984 57 3.43.56
1985 58 4.02.00
1986 59 4.13.07
1987 60 3.46.14
1988 61 3.49.22
1989 62 3.49.52
1990 63 3.57.27
1991 64 4.12.37

 

Savile ran the London Marathon for each of its first eleven years, until he was 64 years old.  He is not shown in any results after 1991.  One caveat is that these years didn’t have the benefit of chip timing, nor the timing mats at 5k intervals which make it difficult to cheat the course.

I’ll admit that I took a look at this hoping to nail the guy, perhaps by finding a freakishly good time, or extreme variations.  But to my disappointment I couldn’t find much of a story here.  These times have the ring of truth about them: not so good they’re unbelievable, but consistent with a recreational runner of a reasonable standard.  His best times are only slightly outside the current (fairly demanding) “good for age” times for the Virgin Money London Marathon.  His 1987 time, for example, is only 74 seconds outside the mark.

One reason for scepticism about his times has been his assertion that he didn’t need to train for marathons: he claimed that he just turned up and ran.  Galling though this might be to runners slogging through their training programmes, if you run in as many races as Savile claimed to, that can itself be sufficient training to produce a respectable performance.

And Savile had an extremely high profile – it is difficult to imagine him slipping in and out of the race unnoticed. There is no credible evidence of cheating, and on this occasion – only – we should give him the benefit of the doubt.

Coe and Ovett, though?  I think the jury’s still out.

 

Postscript:  after I put a link to this story on Chiltern Harriers’ Facebook page, a fellow Harrier called Ian Chapman posted this:

Much as I hate to defend him I ran most of the London Marathon with, or close to, Jimmy Savile in 1983 although he pulled away and beat me by a few minutes in the end.

I can confirm from that year’s results that Savile did in fact finish about eight minutes before Mr Chapman.  As this was the year of Savile’s fastest London Marathon time (3.33.59) this suggests to me that his other results are also likely to be genuine.  Not all marathon runners are good people.

Second postscript, 16 July 2019. I had this comment from Jules:

He did train!! Back then I lived in stoke Mandeville, he was always out running so he definitely put the training in. I assume he trained harder when being a wrestler too. Lots of people do secret training as with secret revision for exams, so as to appear better to others!!

So it looks like Savile wasn’t telling the truth about not doing any training – which provides more evidence that his times were genuine.