Losing My Religion

Mum used to say that it was about Rob and me getting experience of religion, being exposed to it so we could make up her own mind, and we believed her, at least until we had young children of her own. Then we understood it was really about getting the parents a brief respite every Sunday from noisy kids.

As a six year old, I didn’t enjoy Bushey & Oxhey Methodist Sunday School: one morning on the car journey there, in my apprehensive mood I pressed my offering – a brass threepenny bit – so hard into my leg that it left the clear impression of its portcullis on my thigh.

Three years later, Rickmansworth Crusader class was much more fun. The leaders were younger and jollier, the choruses we sang were short and lively, and I became good friends with some of the boys – more so when some of them turned up in my class in the first year of Watford Grammar.

Crusaders had fun activities. There was poddox, a speedier form of cricket – perhaps exclusive to Crusaders – where each wicket consisted of two stumps with one bail, and a bowler was posted at each end to lob the ball underarm in alternating directions. The batters wielded rounders bats: if they hit the ball they had to run, and there were no boundaries. The heavy bat could propel the small ball a long way across Scotsbridge playing field, and it wasn’t unusual to score eight or nine off a single hit. Poddox was a great way to spend a Friday evening in the summer.

There were excursions like the trip to see Cliff Richard (wow!) perform at a gospel concert, like the five-a-side football tournament. Most of all there were the summer Crusader camps, usually by the seaside.

The days were full of fun and games and new friendships: after dinner was a prayer meeting where, tired and happy, we were receptive to hearing about God’s love. Then an evening walk followed by late night cocoa, and the magic of sleeping under canvas. (Crusaders are still with us today, having rebranded as Urban Saints in 2007.)

The experience of feeling safe and happy away from home and family was magical and intoxicating. The night I returned home, after volunteering to do the washing up I told Mum and Dad that I had accepted Jesus into my heart. I meant it, and at the age of twelve I regarded myself as a Christian. I tried diligently to read the prescribed Bible passage every night, and to say my prayers.

Watford Grammar was not diverse: in my year of about 120 boys there was one Asian and two Jewish boys. There was also one Catholic in our class who was excused daily assembly, which included hymns and prayers: the rest were all of white Christian Protestant heritage. But seeds of doubt were soon being sown in my mind.

Our Divinity master was Mr (later Dr) Raper, a scholarly but approachable man. When the class had got over sniggering at his name, he started teaching us about each different religion in turn. By the end of term, he had taken us through the basic principles of Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism, Judaism, Shinto and Sikhism, and offered objective comparisons with Christianity.

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

My Christian faith should have led me to reject the other religions as simply wrong. But I regarded myself as rational, and this posed a dilemma. Having seen the contradictions in the beliefs and customs of the major religions set out so clearly, favouring one over the others seemed merely a tribal choice, like supporting a particular football team. Surely the only reasonable conclusion was that they must all be mistaken?

My faith was further shaken by my Scripture teacher the following year. Mr Lister, who for unknown reasons had the nickname “Fanny”, was terrifying. An austere, thin figure, he was probably in his sixties, although he appeared at least ninety to us: he had white hair and a white moustache, and was one of the handful of staff who persisted in wearing a gown. In my mind he was an older version of Bunter’s Mr Quelch.

Our Scripture lesson was first period on Thursday morning, which made for a restless Wednesday night. Lister would set us a passage of the Bible to learn – maybe fifteen or twenty verses – and set us a ten question test the following week. The passage would be from the Authorised Version, usually from the Old Testament, and full of obscure and difficult names. If there was any spiritual content, I never discerned it.

The pass mark for the test was (I think) 7/10, and you could get a detention for failing. Of course we all crammed the text into our heads on the way to school on Thursday morning, so it was all completely forgotten by the weekend. We shouldn’t blame God if some people dedicated to spreading His word are uninspiring or downright scary, but I felt my faith weakening again.

Science lessons also encouraged religious scepticism: physics and astronomy, chemistry and biology – especially natural selection – pointed to the origins of the universe, the Earth, and life having natural origins and could explain our world without envisaging a supreme creator.

The coup de grâce was administered at Crusaders when I was fourteen or fifteen, a trivial blow which proved decisive only because my commitment to Jesus was already wavering. One of the junior leaders, a fellow in his early twenties, told a story one Sunday afternoon: he had been with friends, on a road trip in the United States, when their car ran out of gas, and they pulled up at the side of the road. They prayed for God to help them, and soon a friendly motorist stopped and gave them enough gas to get them to the next filling station.

This story was offered as proof of God’s love, and the power of prayer. It seemed absurd that His priority, with so much pain and suffering in the world, would be to deliver these young Englishmen from this annoying inconvenience. Of course this was just one man’s daft story, but years of growing scepticism welled up into a wholesale rejection of Christianity, and I stopped attending Crusaders. The decision may also have been encouraged by a wish to reclaim my Sunday afternoons.

I embraced atheism with the certainty of youth, and for a while adopted an aggressively anti-religious stance. This has softened over the years: I have met many kind and thoughtful people for whom faith clearly provided support and inspiration. Christ’s teachings are wonderful, but I don’t believe in him as the Son of God. I certainly dislike the angry modern strain of atheism which carries hints of the zealotry and intolerance which, ironically, characterise the nastiest aspects of some faiths.

A friend of mine is a lifelong Christian, who was once told by an associate that his faith was misguided, false and selfish. What must that have felt like? Imagine having a fragile ornament in your house, which you love and think beautiful. Then a guest comes to your house and says “I’ve done you a favour, I smashed that hideous ornament of yours.” What right did he have to do that?

My friend’s experience set me thinking about Mr Raper. He hadn’t, as far as I know, set out to turn us into atheists, but he did provide a framework which encouraged us to question our beliefs. Had the outcome been positive for me? Had I acquired truth at the cost of faith and a large portion of hope? Would I have been happier, or a better person, had I remained in that apparent fool’s paradise?

Pascal’s Wager points out that the cost of believing in God if there is none might be some wasted effort in adjusting one’s lifestyle and in attending church – while the cost of not believing in God if He does exist could be eternal damnation. Pascal concluded that it was rational for a doubter to behave as if there was a God.

In this spirit, I reserve the right to allow emotion to override reason, and to be born again late in life. But God, please could you allow me a bit of notice?

Library Night

I used to make use of late opening on Monday evenings, and call in on the way home from the station. I would browse through the beautifully illustrated children’s books and choose six to bring home to read to the girls. The rather stern lady checking out the books said “I don’t like Dr Seuss – it’s just playing with words.” Poetry, then.

Rachel was excited when I brought them home, and tired and impatient for dinner though I was, I loved sitting with her nestled against me on the bedroom floor, enjoying each other’s complete attention as I pointed to the words and she followed. Children’s books had become much brighter since I was a boy. There was Quentin Blake, with his wonderful, affectionate drawings of beaky, friendly people.

And Martin Waddell whose books sometimes achieve a strong emotional pull, every bit as powerful on parent as on child.

I loved watching her respond to the theatricality of the books. One simply described a walk in the country on a summer’s day, but as you turned one page there was a double page spread of a brightly coloured tractor harvesting a field, showing a brilliant blue sky, a sea of golden wheat, the cloud of dust around it, and a frenzy of birds wheeling overhead: I watched delighted as she experienced the shock and joy of turning the page to see that dramatic picture.

I included some educational books, and Rachel was keen to be educated. One was a well-written simplified guide to space and the solar system. It was thrilling to watch her bright eyes as she took it all in, asking question after question, each one showing she had understood the previous answer.

I loved these exhilarating teaching moments, aware that I would not always be able to answer Rachel’s questions, that she would some day no longer look to me for answers, and that she might one day even lose her boundless appetite for learning. The last of these, I’m glad to say, looks unlikely to happen.

Odontophobia

When I retired, one of my tasks was to register with the local dentist. Part of the process was filling in a questionnaire, which included the question “On a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 means not at all, and 10 means extremely, how anxious are you about visiting the dentist?” I marked it an 8. The nice lady asked if I had suffered bad dental experiences. I said yes, in this very building, nearly fifty years ago.


We British have a reputation – mostly deserved, I’m afraid – for bad teeth. In America we’re famous for it. We sent over Keith Richards

and David Bowie

as dental ambassadors. I put this down to a generation of dentists who seemed to come from a military background, recruited in the days when physical strength was required for the job. They thought their patients should take their punishment like men.

Mr R of Rosebank was such a practitioner. He got off to a terrible start by calling Rob Bob and calling me Dick. I needed fillings. He injected local anaesthetic with such force and vigour that it was difficult to imagine it was protecting me from anything still more painful. But my imagination was given some assistance when he started drilling, with what felt like more enthusiasm than accuracy. There might have been an extraction too, my memory is probably trying to protect me.

A handful of visits to Mr R left me so traumatised that when I was of an age to arrange my own dental care, I just didn’t. I dread to think what was going on inside there. Fast forward about twenty years (I know) to the birth of our second daughter. She was born with a cleft palate, and we were told that in the coming years she would need orthodontics and oral surgery. And I realised I would have to look her in the eye and ask her to be brave and tell her it would all be worth it.

So one day in my lunch break I took the first and most difficult step: I went into the dentist and made an appointment for an initial examination. I explained to my colleague why I would soon be taking quite a lot of time away from the desk. “Really? So when did you last go to the dentist?” “Well…you remember Boney M?…”

When I at last got in the chair and opened wide the dentist must have thought she was Aladdin peering in the Cave of Wonders. There was a lot of work to do: fillings, extractions, root canal surgery. There were many appointments over a few weeks. And it wasn’t actually that bad. They were careful and empathetic. Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t fun either, but I found that if I forced my mind to wander, the time soon passed. I also felt a bit proud of facing up to my fear, although everyone else had been seeing their dentists every six months without any fuss for decades. Before long I was able to revert to routine dental care.

Happily the team at Rosebank Dental Surgery are also first class. I am attended to by a team of gentle and skilful women, and the ghost of Mr R has been driven from the building. My dental anxiety levels have lowered: I’m down to about a 6 now. As I write this under lockdown, I’ve had to miss a hygienist’s appointment and I’ll soon miss a checkup. But don’t worry, I’ll attend those appointments when I can, and in the meantime I’m flossing and brushing like a pro. I know I’ll never have gleaming perfect white film star gnashers, but I’d like to still be eating steak to a ripe old age.

Sallie

At about 5pm on February 1st 1971, Rob and I got off the 335 bus and started walking home up the rough surface of Park Avenue. We were surprised to see Mum and Dad walking to meet us. We knew something had happened. When we reached them, they told us that Sallie – our grandma, or Nana as we called her – had died. We would soon learn much more about her.

Sallie and her husband Jack had lived at 22 Malpas Road in Wallasey, a neat little road with low brick walls and tiled front paths. Mum would often take Rob and me there on the train for a week in the summer holidays: Dad’s miserly allowance of holiday precluded him from making the trip. I remember it as a modest but tidy house. There were few toys there, but I remember Jack finding a strong magnet and some paper clips which kept us amused for some time. Mum would often take us to the beach at New Brighton: once I remember her getting us home in a violent thunderstorm. She was probably more scared than we were. Mum would be sure to arrange to meet up in Liverpool with her best friend Speff, who sealed the affection of her godchildren with generous presents.

In 1963 our Dad’s mother, known to us as Nain, fell ill. Mum and Dad planned to move from Oxhey to a larger house in Chorleywood, intending to bring Nain and Taid – Dad’s parents – from Dolgellau to live with us. But Nain died in December, and when our move went through early the next year, Taid decided he would rather stay in Wales. It was decided to invite our other grandparents, Sallie and Jack instead, and they arrived some time in the summer of 1964. Soon after we got a dachshund, named Tumbi after the dachshund she had owned in Wallasey, in turn named after a dog Philip had encountered on service in India.

Chorleywood Tumbi

Mum was a qualified nurse and a dutiful daughter, and although both her parents were in good health, she was no doubt motivated by a wish to be sure they were properly cared for in their old age. But it probably didn’t hurt that they could also help to look after the children: we would have been about eleven and eight years old.

Sallie was a small, warm and cuddly woman with soft features. Her hair had been white for many years. In contrast to the shy Jack, she was chatty and sociable. She was always vague about her age – I don’t for example recall an eightieth birthday celebration – and about the date and number of their wedding anniversaries. Later we would find out why.

But I know that she was 77 when they came to live with us, and she had lived long enough and been through enough that she no longer cared – if she ever did – what people thought of her. She could be blunt to the point of rudeness, and made instant judgements about people on very little information, but was seldom wrong.

On being told that the man engaged to her niece was a lay preacher, she opined “Lay preachers! Hypocrites, the lot of them!”

On meeting the charming and pretty girlfriend Rob brought home, Sallie offered her view to Mum, at high volume: “A shallow girl!”

She was older than Jack, and once told Mum that marriages were better when the woman is older.  I wondered what Mum, five years younger than Dad, was supposed to say to that.

Here are some of Sallie’s sayings:

“Drink plenty water!”
“I’ll believe you, thousands wouldn’t!”
“Would I thump!” (as in “would I hell!”)

“Stir it and stump it, and blow your own trumpet, or trust me, you haven’t a chance!” (From Gilbert and Sullivan’s Ruddigore)
“Go on Kath, it won’t hurt the boy!” (when being an indulgent grandma).
“Can’t stand the man!” when the wrong person appeared on television.

Here are some of the things Sallie did:

She sat rocking her chair, passing comment on the television news.
She drank tea from her favourite floral design china cup and saucer.
She washed her hair using rainwater collected in a metal pail, because she didn’t like using our hard water.
She put her false teeth in a glass of water with Steradent by her bed every night.
She talked politics with Mrs Caradine when she came for tea, especially at election time. (Both were strong labour supporters.)
She walked Tumbi through the woods and over Chorleywood common.
She squashed chocolates between her thumb and forefinger to test if they were hard or soft. (luckily she liked the soft ones).
She set a fire in the dustbin when the contents were overflowing.
She surreptitiously fed Tumbi with cake at tea time and scraps from her plate at dinner time, thus encouraging the dog’s appalling table manners.
She knitted jumpers for Rob and me.
She smoked the occasional cigarette, always with the appearance of a novice smoker and a guilty schoolgirl. Very occasional, compared to Mum’s forty a day.

Here are some of the people and things Sallie liked:

Harold Wilson (She was very excited to go to hear him speak in Watford)
Pears Soap
Harry Worth
Dachshunds, preferably black and tan
Danny Kaye
Songs of Praise
Wordsworth
An occasional sherry
Rose’s Lime Jelly
Tennyson
George Eliot

Here are some of the people and things Sallie did not like

The Rolling Stones (“dirty!”)
Jimmy Savile (“horrible man!” – my god, how right she was)
The Queen Mother (“waving all the time, with that silly grin on her face!”)
Loud music coming from our bedroom (“thump thump thump – it sounds like the washing machine! They all sound the same!”)
Edward Heath

Sallie’s natural sociability no doubt eased her transition to life down south, although Jack sometimes seemed ill at ease. Life in our home was harmonious for a few years: Sallie made cakes, knitted, read books and drank tea. Jack, who had been a ship’s carpenter, made beautiful and useful things out of wood, and carried out the more skilful part of the work in building a swimming pool in our back garden.

In 1968 Jack became ill with arteriosclerosis, and he was moved to the downstairs living room where Sallie and Mum nursed him with dedication. This must have been physically and emotionally exhausting for both mother and daughter, and they may have felt some relief when his struggle ended.

Sallie outlived her husband by two years, a period I remember as turbulent. Mum didn’t enjoy sharing her kitchen with Sallie – perhaps jealous of her more confident cake baking skills. Rob recalls a ferocious argument when Sallie secretly baked a sponge cake and stashed it under her bed. Mum was upset at the suggestion that her cakes weren’t good enough.

For Mum the combination of friction with her mother, the arrival of the menopause, an overactive thyroid and differences with Rob – now going through a lively adolescence – could make an explosive mixture. Dad, Tumbi and I tried to keep our heads down.

The day Sallie died, our cleaning lady Mrs Galloway, known to us as “Gorgeous Gus” found her in her favourite rocking chair, with Tumbi at her feet.

Written by Kath and Aelwyn

After Jack died, Sallie told Mum part of their history which she hadn’t shared before, and when Sallie died, Mum in turn shared it with Rob and me, now 17 and 14. Jack had not been her first husband: she had previously been married to David, known as Davy. Her older brother Tom, fighting in the Great War, met Jack and brought him home to meet his family, and Sallie must have taken a fancy to him. She left Davy and went to live with Jack, causing quite a scandal. Her divorce from Davy took some years to come through, and Mum told us that her parents were married between the birth of her brother Philip and her own birth.

I found it difficult to picture my kindly white-haired grandma getting up to these shenanigans, but Rob and I enjoyed the romance of the story and imagined the handsome young Jack rescuing Sallie from Davy’s evil clutches.


Sarah Emily Cooper was born on 19 March 1887 in Chirk, just inside Wales. Her father John Cooper was a brick and tile maker who had moved there from the Potteries in Staffordshire.

John Cooper, in his Besses o’ th’ Barn Band uniform

Sallie had two older brothers, Dick and Tom, and an older sister Bella. When Sallie was just fifteen months old, her mother Alice died of typhoid fever. John was left with four children to care for, and it appears that Alice’s mother Sarah came to help out. But she developed cancer of the womb, and it might have been with her encouragement that Alice‘s younger sister Edie moved in – probably in the early 1890s – and became John’s common law wife. They couldn’t be officially wed, because until 1907 it was illegal for a widower to marry his deceased wife’s sister.

(This prohibition arose from canon law, which regarded brothers-in-law and sisters-in-law as siblings, and hence viewed sex between them as immoral. From the 1860s onwards there was a campaign to get this archaic law repealed, along with the corresponding law prohibiting a widow from marrying her deceased husband’s brother. This became such a perennial theme that Gilbert and Sullivan satirised it in Iolanthe, in which the Queen of the Fairies sings:

He shall prick that annual blister
Marriage with deceased wife’s sister.
)

Aelwyn on John Cooper (1997)

Edie had two children of her own from her first marriage, and it seems there was no room for the two younger girls with their father and their stepmother/auntie. Bella was sent to live with her aunt Annie and her husband John Stanford, a prosperous couple in Wrexham. Sallie was not so lucky. She and her brothers were sent to live with their Uncle Tom – Alice’s brother, and his sister – her auntie Emily, who was disabled, and worked as a seamstress.

So before she was seven, Sallie had lost her mother, been sent away from her father, and separated from her closest sibling, Bella. The three children were now living with an uncle and auntie who may well have resented their new responsibilities. By all accounts, hers was not a happy childhood.

Tom never married. He was a coalminer, and apparently a heavy drinker. Sallie is said to have hated him. One story is that Tom would walk for miles to reach England go to the pub – at the time pubs in Wales were closed by law on Sundays – and his route back took him over the Chirk Aqueduct on the Llangollen Canal, perhaps arriving home in a foul mood. Mum said Sallie used to pray for him to fall drunkenly to his death.

In 1910 at the age of 23 she married Davy Hughes, described as a terracotta model maker. Surprisingly the 1911 census shows them both living with Tom and Emily, when they might have had better options. Family stories do not support the evil persona Rob and I had invented for Davy, instead painting him as sweet natured and gentle, happy to give Sallie’s niece Marjorie a ride on his bike.

Sallie and Davy had no children. Perhaps they were happy together for a while, but when her brother Tom came back from the war and introduced his friend, Sallie must have seen something in Jack that won her over.

Sallie’s brother Tom, with Jack. Taken during WW1

In 1920 she left Davy for Jack. This was not an easy choice for her. Her behaviour was regarded as scandalous, and was frowned upon by some in her own family. But Bella was supportive, even at the cost of fierce arguments with her husband Ernest, and the two sisters remained close until Bella’s death in 1956. Davy sued for divorce, and the papers, describing events of a hundred years ago, are interesting reading.

I now see Chester and Runcorn in a new light.

Sallie and Jack set up home together: Philip was born in 1922, and Kath (my Mum) in 1925. Kath was so small at birth that the midwife doubted her chances of survival, and prepared the couple for bad news.

Sallie and Kath

The divorce was a lengthy process, and was not finalised until January 1927. Two weeks later when they married, Sallie gave her age as 34, shaving off five years, and perhaps Jack never knew her true age. Hence her reticence on the subject.

Sallie and Jack

Years later when Jack died, Sallie must have decided that Philip and Kath should hear the story of her first marriage from her, rather than perhaps from their older cousins Marjorie and Mollie. Kath now understood Sallie’s vagueness about their wedding date. But Sallie still didn’t quite tell her the full story: in her later years Kath always believed that she was born after her parents were married, and this seemed important to her in an old-fashioned way. Perhaps Sallie was sparing her feelings.

It appears that Sallie and Jack tried hard to conceal their “scandalous” history from their children – not, I imagine, out of shame – it was just love – but to protect Philip and Kath from feeling any stigma. According to her niece Maureen, Sallie burned all her old photographs, presumably to prevent her children finding them and asking awkward questions.

A couple of years ago, my daughter drew my attention to an intriguing dedication inside a volume of Tennyson’s poems which we had passed on to her.

Why would Jack dedicate the book to his “wife” Sallie in 1919, when she was still married to Davy and living with him? Perhaps he was promising Sallie that he would marry her when he could. But probably this inscription was added or amended retrospectively to deflect questions about the date of their marriage.

Without question, their life was tough, and Jack often struggled to find work in the shipyards during the depression. But they worked hard and were frugal, and my Mum’s stories from childhood suggested little money but no shortage of love and care. Sallie loved reading, and set much store in the value of education. This attitude bore rich fruit, especially in Philip, who became a Professor of English Literature and a world renowned authority on Shakespeare.

Sallie and Philip

By the time of my first memories of visiting Sallie and Jack, they seemed settled and content. As Sallie lived with us for seven years – and because she had a strong personality – she is the grandparent I recall most vividly. She was ruthless when she encountered dishonesty or pretension, and – at least at the age I knew her – made no effort to be tactful. She made rapid judgements about people, but was fiercely loyal to friends and family. She was a warm and kind person, and a loving and much loved grandma. I never knew how much she’d been through.

The Bubble-Car Picture

I hadn’t thought about it for years. After our dad died, my brother and I were performing the melancholy task of sorting through the stuff in his garage. Dad hadn’t driven for the last few years, and had sold his car, so we had used the garage to store old furniture and other things he no longer needed. An upholstered armchair doesn’t look its best after doing time in a garage, so this and most other contents were soon sorted onto the pile for the house clearance people. But there was a box of papers and pictures – some framed – which caught my eye, and I took it home with me to sort through at leisure.

My grandfather Jack – my Mum’s father – had enjoyed painting, and there were a number of his paintings there. I flicked through them, until a rural scene in a battered frame suddenly seized my attention. I was instantly back at my childhood home, where the picture had hung in our lounge. A canal runs under a bridge: a large oak tree grows on the bank beyond. Tiny figures descending a track add a cartoonish touch – a man and his dog, the man with something long over his shoulder, perhaps a gun, a fishing rod or a spade. It is annotated:

Red Bridge – Chirk ‘56. John Brockbank

Jack was not a man who liked to blow his own trumpet, so I take it either that he was proud of this painting, or that perhaps it was a gift to my mother who might have asked him to sign it. Either way, I’m glad he did.

The painting is pleasant and carefully executed, but not especially distinctive, apart from one detail which hooked into my memory and confirmed that this was indeed the picture I remembered. Through the small arch of the bridge, Jack had painted two bushes, either side of the stream. To my childish eye this had looked like two people in a bubble car, and even after I had inspected it closely, I could never quite shake this impression. And now, perhaps fifty years later, I was looking once more upon the bubble-car picture.

Chirk is in Wales, just on the border. Jack had no personal connection with the place, except that his wife Sallie had grown up there. In 1956 they were living in Wallasey, on the Wirral, some fifty miles away, but they didn’t drive. I try to imagine the day. Perhaps my parents, who lived in Irby in Cheshire at the time, took Sallie and Jack to Chirk for a picnic – possibly a nostalgic trip at Sallie’s request. Rob would have been nearly three, me a bump in my mother’s tummy. Or perhaps their son Philip came for a visit from Cambridge with his wife Doreen and baby Jonathan: Philip was restless and enjoyed trips out. I can imagine Sallie catching up with friends in town while Jack, never at ease socially, elected to remain on the riverbank with his sketchbook.

I had the painting re-framed and it now hangs in our dining room.  I had been hoping to try to find the Red Bridge – Chirk on a trip to north Wales my wife and I have planned in September: but as I write in the third week of the Coronavirus lockdown, it is looking doubtful whether we can go this year. And then, when I posted the painting in the Chirk History Facebook group – in the hope of finding its location – I was told the sad news that the bridge, on the Llangollen Canal, was destroyed in the early 1970s, and that the tree came down a few years ago.

Ah well, I still have the painting. And a lovely fellow from the Facebook group offered to take some pictures of the site on his walk and send them through.

The scene today from Jack’s viewpoint. (Phil Roberts)

The remnants of the Red Bridge. (Phil Roberts)

And I’m told the bridge looked just as Jack painted it.

Lockdown Diary: part 1

 

mallow

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!

The Laboratory in Chestnut Avenue

paper round 2

Mum thought she was doing me a favour, and perhaps she was. Shopping in Rickmansworth one Saturday morning she had seen a notice at the newsagent: Paperboys/girls required. The same afternoon I was signing up for duty. It wasn’t perfect – the nearest available round was Bridle Lane in Loudwater, a hilly two miles from our home in Chestnut Avenue. But it paid thirty shillings a week – one pound ten! That was better than five bob pocket money.

It was November, and the dark mornings had arrived. Next morning I switched on my battery lamps and cycled down the rough of Park Avenue, freewheeling joyfully down Troutstream Way, and pedalling laboriously up the other side until my legs could do no more, and I had to get off and push. Mr Ward met me there and showed me the round: Bridle Lane was, and is, a genteel and quirky private road, with names not numbers if you please, and more than its share of thatched roofs and swimming pools. Presumably the children who lived there had no need of extra pocket money, or else attended boarding schools.  “This can be a great job” Mr Ward confided, “when you’re up before everyone else, and the sun is shining. When it’s cold and wet, though…”. He showed me the hidden entrances and pointed out where the aggressive dogs lived. “Get it done by eight during the week, nine at the weekends.”

A few weeks in, I found a manilla envelope sellotaped to one of the front doors, marked For the Paper Boy. Inside was a ten shilling note. A decent Christmas tip for about twenty deliveries.

But the first winter was tough. The roads were frequently icy so I had to take the downhill very gingerly. Going up Troutstream Way there was grand looking house with a large window, showing a rich red carpet adorning two flights of stairs. It looked so warm and luxurious in there, I felt like an orphan boy, shut out in the cold.

And there was a girl, a pretty one, who rode with her bag of papers in the opposite direction, but we didn’t acknowledge each other. I invented scenarios where she had fallen off her bike and I came to her rescue, but it didn’t happen.

paper round 1

By the time I had reached Bridle Lane, my fingers were numb from clutching the handlebars, and could barely open the stack of papers, or separate them. The only effective remedy, I found, was sheepskin mittens.

Sometimes if Watford had been playing the night before, I would pounce on the pile, and pull out a tabloid to find the score inside the back page – back then newspapers actually contained news, sometimes. I would also make straight for the Daily Sketch, so I could read Peanuts.

If a customer had cancelled their papers for a holiday, still half asleep I might accidentally put the next paper in the stack through their door, at which I cursed myself. I hated to get it wrong. Someone complained that their paper was soaking wet on delivery, and I worked out that, on rainy days, it might be better to keep the paper in the bag until I reached the front door.

Sundays were good and bad. Good, because I had an extra hour in bed. Bad, because the papers were huge, especially the Sunday Times. At least they seemed huge to a small thirteen year old boy, and the narrow bag strap cut into my shoulder. If a house had a tiny letterbox, sorry but the paper was left on the doorstep, rain or shine. Fridays were heavy too, back when everyone took the Watford Observer.

Bridle Lane

We never took a bath in the morning back then, and a shower was just something I had at school after rugby. I just got back from a forty minute paper round plus a strenuous four mile bike ride in my school clothes, washed my hands – filthy from newsprint if I wasn’t wearing gloves – ate breakfast and went off to school. Did I stink? In winter probably, in summer definitely, but hey, all the boys did in those days.

Saturdays were the best. The start was late and the stack was light. And I could pick up my pay in Rickmansworth. It seemed like a fortune. I think now I should have spent it on adventures with friends, bought classic pop records, even spent it on girlfriends if only, but I was a prudent little fellow and “invested” it in my coin collection, convinced that the old coinage would soar in value after decimalisation. I still have the collection, and I’m still waiting.

Cycling four miles each morning before breakfast must have made me fitter, but I was envious of my older brother Rob, who had taken on the paper round in our road for a rival newsagent. He just had to roll out of bed and walk for five minutes to pick up his papers: sometimes I wondered if he finished the round without waking up. So I asked Mr Ward to let me know if the round in our road came free. At last it did, so I quit the Bridle Lane round and took it over. My pay went down by one sixth but the time went down by one third, and Rob and I would pass each other in the road with our bags.

Chestnut Avenue2

Eventually, with his A-levels approaching, Rob decided to give up his round. The opportunism and ruthlessness later to characterise my business career was already taking shape, and with his cooperation I hatched a plan. Without either of us telling the shop, I took over his deliveries for two weeks, and turned up at the newsagent in Chorleywood – then on the corner of the Rickmansworth Road and Solesbridge Lane – to claim my pay.

The shop was run by a sour-faced lady with a disconcerting habit of shaking her head doubtfully while you were addressing her. At first she demurred, but I explained that Rob had quit, and I had already been doing the round for a fortnight. Her small eyes narrowed in concentration, and she must have reasoned that, indeed, the pay had not been collected, there had been no complaints from customers, and that I had saved her the inconvenience of finding someone else for the round. The job was mine, and at just fifteen, I controlled the newspaper delivery racket in Chestnut Avenue.

I experimented with doubling up: I put one bag on each shoulder and tried to complete both deliveries in one circuit, but I limped like an overburdened mule, and on Sundays the weight was impossible. In addition I would frequently have to retrace my steps when I forgot to check one of the bags for the next delivery. In the end, scientific study showed that it was no slower, and much easier, to do the rounds sequentially.

This had consequences for the disgruntled customer who, leaving for work unreasonably early, complained that his Telegraph was often arriving too late. I offered a perfunctory apology and walked on. He must have escalated his complaint to the shop, who probably reassured him that the delivery was being made before the required deadline. Soon his daily paper appeared in the rival newsagent’s stack: sadly for him this was the batch I delivered second. I like to think he saw me walk past his house, knowing that it would be another half hour before I got round to bringing him his paper. That’s what you get.

Power corrupts, they say, and hubris was setting in. There was a local evening paper, the Evening Echo, and we had a daily delivery by car. I couldn’t tolerate the presence of these incomers on my territory, so I volunteered to take it over. I was shown the round on a driving tour of Chorleywood and half of Rickmansworth, four miles, perhaps, with deliveries to about fifteen houses, dotted around the Rickmansworth Alps of Valley Road, the Clump and the Drive. It took two fellows to give me this tour: perhaps one fellow was showing me the ropes, and showing the other fellow how to show the ropes to other fellows.

Echo newsboys and newsgirls collected the money from each subscriber on Friday evening, and handed it over at base camp less their bit of pay, so pay was proportional to the number of houses on the round. With the help of a sales promotion, I hatched what seemed a brilliant business plan. I energetically canvassed my road for new subscribers, and signed up about ten. Then I toured round to the five most isolated and awkward houses on the route, and informed them that deliveries would be discontinued. I had turned a widely scattered round with fifteen subscribers into a compact one with twenty. Brilliant, no?

You might have spotted the flaw in my plan. When I returned to base next Friday, I was given one week’s money in lieu, and told that my services were no longer required. A customer had kicked up a fuss at being told he couldn’t have the Echo delivered, and the sales team had taken his side. I learned, perhaps, that the smartest business plan will fail if it upsets customers.

About this time my grandfather, a retired headmaster, expressed in a letter to my parents his disapproval at me having three paper rounds, and his concern that I might be too busy and too tired to apply myself properly to my studies. Ah, that’s why I couldn’t do calculus. Still, it gave me cover to make a graceful retreat.

By now my own A-levels were approaching, but there was still time for one more experiment on my remaining rounds in my Chestnut Avenue laboratory. I learned that some school-friends distributed Christmas cards on about the 10th December, to remind their customers that t’was the season to be generous. Cynical? I suppose. More cynical, though, (but perhaps it could be excused as a contribution to economic science?) would be to distribute cards only to the even numbers, and then keep a careful tally of the returns.

I estimated that the delivery of a cheap Christmas card boosted tips by an average of about 50%, which was nice to have, but this insight came too late to be useful, because before long I hung up the old shoulder bags for good. And that would have been that, but for Mrs H, a family friend who lived at number 45. She had heard that her friend across the road had received a Christmas card from the paperboy, and enquired gently with my parents whether she had upset me in some way. Er, no, sorry about that, Mrs H.

The Secret Genius of Charles III

by de Vere Edwards          (Sunday 22 March 2263)

The public face

On the three hundredth anniversary of the release of the first album traditionally credited to the Beatles, Please Please Me, it is a good moment to revisit the controversy surrounding the true authorship of their “self-written” music.

 

Most critics are now agreed that four ordinary boys growing up with only a rudimentary education could not possibly have produced music of such complexity and beauty.  Little is known about the early lives of John, Paul, George and Ringo, and although literacy was widespread in the mid 20th century, it is quite possible that they could not read or write.

They are known, however, to have been raised in Liverpool, a poor city in the north of England.  In the 1950s when they were growing up, Liverpool would have been mostly rubble from the Middle War which ended in 1945: and although some people in England enjoyed the benefits of running water and electricity by now, it is very unlikely that these services would have been available in Liverpool at the time.

So we can safely dismiss the idea that four poorly educated people brought up in such poverty and squalor – effectively urban peasants – could have created such joyful, uplifting and often sophisticated music.  Of course, this raises the question: who did write and record it?  Obviously only someone with a complete and presumably expensive education.  And of course, someone young enough to be enthusiastic about youth music, which did not become popular in Britain until about 1955.

When you look at the context, an answer springs out straight away.  The man usually named as their “producer” is George Martin, who is known to have made recordings with The Goons, a popular comedy act of the time.  And the Goons had a notable fan: Prince Charles – at the time heir to the British throne, later briefly Charles III.

George Martin – the fixer

The British monarchy was extremely conservative at this time, and Queen Elizabeth’s son could not be seen to be involved in anything so vulgar or scandalous as popular music.  So he would have been faced with a dilemma: how could he get his songs recorded and released?  Charles is known to have been an associate of Spike Milligan – the writer of The Goon Show – who once wittily called Charles a “grovelling bastard”. Spike would have known George Martin well, and most likely set up a meeting between the two.

Prince Charles (right) with Spike Milligan – the link

After that it would have been a simple step to get his songs recorded. Martin, as a senior producer at EMI records, would have had access to capable musicians and good recording studios: he would also have had the contacts to recruit likeable working class actors to provide the public face of the band, while making sure they were kept well away from the recording studios – apart from publicity photographs, of course.  Charles would have been only fourteen or fifteen when the first “Beatles” recordings were made: this explains the relatively simple and crude nature of the early songs.

It is less clear who George Martin might have used to make the recordings, but a likely candidate is a “beat group” known as “A Band of Angels” which was formed at the prestigious Harrow School about this time.  Musical instruments were extremely expensive at this time, so it is probable that only the boys of wealthy parents would have been able to raise the money to buy them, and therefore develop any meaningful playing skills.  Or indeed to access the electricity that would have been required.  What Liverpool lad could afford a drum kit in those difficult days?  Certainly not Ringo Starr.  But it would have been no problem for Andrew Charles Malcolm Glywn Petre at Harrow School.

A Band of Angels – did they sing and play the “Beatles” hits?

Intriguingly, almost all evidence of Charles having any musical talent, or indeed any interest in popular music – save a passing reference to a fondness for singing group The Three Degrees – seems to have been carefully expunged from contemporary records.  Such a determined and sophisticated operation to cover his tracks could only have come from the very highest level.

Further evidence is provided by some of the “Beatles” songs.  For example, Back in the USSR displays an advanced knowledge of Soviet geography – the Ukraine, Georgia etc – well beyond the reach of ordinary citizens at the time.  By contrast, it would have been a simple matter for Charles to consult his ambassador for this information.

But what of the frontmen, the actors?  Of course, they had to be kept sweet to protect the royal family’s shameful secret, and this presented difficulties.  John Lennon, notoriously difficult, might have threatened to expose the pretence: in any event, he was assassinated in 1980.  George Harrison died in mysterious (and convenient?) circumstances in 2001.  Paul and Ringo seem to have been more amenable, and were placated with knighthoods.

Charles: unable to face the man killed for his convenience?

In conclusion, while there is still some doubt about who might have performed the “Beatles” songs, there is a compelling case that the compositions traditionally labelled “Lennon/McCartney” or “Harrison” were written by Charles, the young man who would later be King of England and Wales.  And the most persuasive evidence for this, ironically, is the perfect cleansing – and so the complete absence – of any detail in contemporary sources which might confirm this secret.

Charles – forgotten songwriting genius

 

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

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.

 

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.”

 

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.

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.