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

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. I was there on 1st April 1969. There was a relaxed end-of-term vibe, and 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 recall only 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!  We have since learned that this was not the only night of the show. Chris Marshall, a contemporary of the Commodes, got in touch and was able to supply this information:

I went back to my 1969 diary and was puzzled to note I recorded seeing the show on Monday 31st March. On the Tuesday 1st April I noted seeing Led Zeppelin at Klooks Kleek and your article referred to Watford 1-Southport 0.

 At first I thought I’d somehow got my diary wrong at the time so I checked both the WFC and LZ dates and they were both indeed on 1st April!

 Which leads me to conclude Take-off was not a one-off but at least a two-off and maybe more!

Isn’t the internet wonderful for aggregating information about small pieces of history? Richard Leach 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 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 (photo from 1967)

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, later revealed as a prolific sex offender.

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 had 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. You can read Roy Holllingworth’s review for Melody Maker here.

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 there is a recording of the whole performance – albeit with atrocious sound quality.

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.

 

The Golden Tree of St Francis

 

What the fuck was that? 

A woman was screaming.  Pitched halfway between fear and anger, loud and sustained. An adult woman, Dan thought, yet there was a note of petulance, the suggestion of a toddler tantrum.  It came abruptly to a halt.

He looked around as he spooned the last of the pistachio ice cream into his mouth.  The couple at the next table hadn’t reacted.  Dan looked down the street to where the sound seemed to have come from.  Seven people walked up together, chatting and laughing, three generations of a family.  Had no-one else heard?

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

Dan had travelled with his family to Tuscany for a week in August to join his brother-in-law’s 50th birthday celebrations.  There were nine of them, plus the two dogs, staying in a beautiful villa near Arezzo.  A few days passed pleasantly, eating, drinking, swimming, reading and chatting, but soon he had become restless.

So after breakfast he had set out to explore the nearby town of Lucignano, parking just outside the city wall.  The morning was spent seeking the shady side of the ancient paved streets, sometimes finding relief in the air conditioning of the souvenir shops. He wandered into the rather faded Church of San Michele, where a dusty old funeral carriage was on display, accompanied by a hooded female figure in black.

His ancient travel guide proclaimed that the Golden Tree of St Francis or Albero d’Oro was “a masterpiece produced in Sienese goldsmith’s shops during the 14C-15C” and worth a detour so he navigated his way to the municipal museum.  As he waited to buy his entry ticket he had that sense of a chore to be completed which always accompanied his visits to museums and galleries.  So much information to be taken in, sifted, so many things competing for his attention, how could he be worthy to choose between them?

If history and art were so exciting, he mused, why did he feel this weight, this dull foreboding?  He would thrill at the rise of the curtain in the theatre, at the opera: hearing the referee’s starting whistle, signalling a tiny, unpredictable new chapter for his team, his chest would tighten.  When the lights went down and the cheers rose at a rock concert, Dan felt sixteen again.  Back in the day, even the old Pearl and Dean theme, for god’s sake, stirred anticipation.  Maybe museums just weren’t his thing: still, what else had he expected to find in the town?  Anyway, he was here now.

Before long he was standing in front of the famous reliquary: round boxes of irregular size hung from spindly curved branches.  He felt instant revulsion.  It was no doubt a superb example of the goldsmith’s art, but it seemed horribly ugly: over-ornate, and at the same time slightly shabby.  According to the descriptive plaque it no longer contained any holy relics.  Apparently it had taken 120 years to make it: expert craftsmen had spent years, decades of their lives working on it, knowing they would never see it completed.  Was that wonderful or was it ridiculous?  Dan was no Christian, but he knew that Christ had embraced poverty, simplicity.  How many of the people of Lucignano, of Siena, had died of malnutrition, had seen their children taken away for want of clean water, while on the orders of the Church the goldsmiths plied their patient and costly craft?  Slightly to his surprise he heard himself mutter a curse under his breath, hypocritical bastards.

Eventually he emerged from the gloomy museum, greeting the scorching sun in the square with relief.  It was half past one, and he was hungry.  He chose a narrow street at random, and after a few turns came to a trattoria with a couple of small tables in the shade, where he sat down and ordered a pasta dish and a glass of rosé.

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

Dan had already settled his bill, so he picked up his bag and strode briskly up the street from where the cry had seemed to come.  He didn’t know if he was motivated by chivalry or curiosity as he climbed the steep cobbles, now in full afternoon sun.  There was no-one in view, but he thought he saw something dark disappearing up a narrow turning to the left, halfway up the hill.

He quickened his pace as he followed the shape up a flight of stone steps, once more just catching a glimpse of a figure in the distance.  Dan wiped his brow: all shade seemed to have disappeared from the town, but his curiosity intensified.  He had the impression of light, furtive movement ahead. The figure might be quite innocuous, but Dan wanted to see it for himself.

The chase was on. Whenever he turned a corner, he just caught sight of something vanishing, never a clear view.  The heat reflected mercilessly from the pavement.  He took turn after turn in pursuit, in frustration breaking into a run, the sweat now dripping from his forehead.  But it made no difference: he was no closer.  As if he was being taunted.  Once the figure took a turning just a few metres ahead of him, but when Dan turned the same corner it was already disappearing from few, seventy metres ahead.  How could that be…

He was the pursuer, yet he sensed perhaps he was being hunted…or led into a trap? This thing could have easily shaken him off, but no, at every corner it lingered just long enough to show him the way.  But Dan was not thinking clearly: he had started this game and he would finish it.  He felt his pulse thudding in his temple as he came back on to a main street: the sun now seemed to be directly overhead and he was surprised to notice that the streets and cafes were deserted.  As he ran, he realised he had lost his quarry: as he turned the corner this time there been no glimpse.

He slowed to a walk, then stopped and closed his eyes as he tried to regain his breath. He found himself laughing: this was ridiculous, a trick of his imagination.  How strange he must have looked, running through the scorching streets, chasing some ghost…he looked up and saw that he was once more by the Church of San Michele, and moved inside to escape the sun.  He wandered around exploring it again, trying to compose himself.

He looked at the funeral carriage again.  Wait, hadn’t there been a figure next to it?  Yes, there, to the left of the carriage, he could make out faint marks on the floor where the feet had been.  In a playful spirit, he planted his feet in the marks…

 

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

Signore, posso prendere questa sedia? 

Dan surfaced abruptly and waved the chair away, Si, Si. The ice cream dish was still in front of him. He was no longer seated in the shade.  The relaxed bustle and chatter of the trattoria resumed.  What a strange dream…but…

But now he was standing again…his vision constrained by something dark…he tried to turn his head, move his feet, but he could not.  He stared out passively at the dusty church…he tried to scream but no sound came back to him.

 

run places

the path that runs between the trees to the No Parkin sign on Gorelands Lane which seems to run downhill in both directions…

the long diagonal clear path through the crop in the large field on the way to the Dumb Bell, where the crop stands proud and high, and the path invites me in, today I go this way…

high above the Chess where the track opens up to the left and I see across the valley to Latimer House…

when I turn away from Chalfont St Giles after running along the Misbourne valley, aware of the ground to my right I have just covered, which somehow comes to mind when I enter my bank code…

the farmyard with the mud by the gate where the cows are in the barn just before I cross the old A41 at the end of Kings Langley on the way to lunch with Mum and Dad. I haven’t been this way for years…

the narrow path between lakes leading to the Coy Carp where I have surprised anglers and once a kingfisher…

and when I reach the canal at the Coy Carp, and smell soap powder from the weir…

the gravel track forming part of the middle path up to Stag Lane…

crossing the lane and the stile to see the wide view opening up over the fields towards the Chalfont Centre…

on the farm track heading towards the ford across the Chess, with the watercress farm and alpacas to my left…

the phone box on the Amersham road near the junction with Dog Kennel Lane, where I find a gap to cross the traffic…

out of Chesham towards the Moor, between the railway bridge and the start of the long car park, which I think of when I floss my teeth on the lower right….

the top of the hill when I reach the field by the Open Air Museum and try to go faster as Garmin shows one mile since home…

Springwell Lake, wild and deserted save the birds, the lake comes and goes between the trees..,

coming into Cassiobury Park at the end of a half, less than a mile to go but which lasts so long…

 

in my run places I’m lost in effort and pass through in seconds but later picture myself there and yearn to be back and when I cannot visit them I ache to be there

Cinquanta

verona2

Rik, fast approaching half a ton
Decided something must be done
Respecting this occasion mighty
So he took ten out from Blighty –

verona3
Rob came out to fair Verona
With Robyn, Lindsay and Fiona:
Rachel, Alice, saw no harm in
Flying out and watching Carmen
Debbie then expressed a need to
Have a hol and see Aida
While Kath and Ael declared quite archly
They would favour Pagliacci
Lastly Phil (whose opera passion
Balanced out his sense of fashion)
Made up eleven, perfect team
To challenge the Italian dream.

Four operas in three days went past
Five travelled home, while six made fast
Their convoy south, and soon were gone
To the village, trousers of St.John
And soon they met invaders from the east
Two Gauls brought Tim from freshly conquered Greece
Biff, Sue and Nelson rushed to Umbria
To make our party even numberier:
Alice whiled away the hour
With the princes in the tower
Finding bugs throughout the county
Magnifying Daddy’s bounty:
Rachel swore, by hook or crook
To read her way through every book.

Then did Craig, courageous, witty
Resolve to find Perugia city
And the others would essay to
Follow Biff the “Navigator”
Which sterling strategy unravelled
As round and round the town they travelled
The moon rose, and the wolves were barking
Still they hadn’t found their parking
Until, at last, their visit done
They ventured on the homeward run:
Now our story gets quite scary –
Enter the Carabinieri
Who seized on Rik, on Tim, on Gauls
And grabbed them firmly by the – arms
Asserting the insurance sheet
Was out of date and incomplete
Once Rik was silent, then twice more
And so they charged him Traditor!
And decreed that he be later
Interred beneath the escalator

verona
Which would indeed have been his doom
Like Radames inside his tomb
But for Theodore and Ulysse brave
Who, determined Rik to save
And making sure they did not miss
Gave both police a Zidane kiss
Enabling all to get away
Undamaged on this fateful day.

And so, our tale of travellers bold
You’ll thank the gods, is nearly told:
But heed its lessons: in Perugia
Parcheggio will quickly lose ya
Listening from the city wall
You’ll hear the siren voices call
“This way! That way! Over there!”
Until they give up in despair
Three cars condemned to streets infernal
Suffering this fate eternal –
And by the pricking of my thumbs
Someone’s eaten all the plums!

 

(August 2006)

The Bream and the Mule

There’s a hair on your screen

In August 2005, my brother and I were staying in Sorgues, near Avignon, with our families and our parents. One evening a game of Scrabble® was proposed. Debbie and I were busy clearing up the kitchen after dinner, but the rest of the party divided into teams, and we soon heard the pot pourri of sounds associated with that game: gales of laughter, cries of indignation developing into violent argument, etc.

When we emerged into the warm French evening and examined the board, we began to understand what the fuss was about. Granted, there was no Chambers’ Dictionary to hand, but really, unopen? I gave my niece an open carton of milk, and asked her to unopen it. She closed it. Exactly my point, you can’t unopen something, except by reversing the footage. And Zil? The Russian manufacturer of military vehicles was a proper noun, a brand name, with the Z capitalised. Dammit, it was ZiL, even the L was capitalised, it stood for Zavod imeni Likhachova as all know.

The Bream and the Mule002

At this point Rob perhaps sensed I was getting a little overwrought, and suggested, probably by way of distraction, that I might enjoy trying to incorporate the words on the board into a poem. I’m not one to back off from a pointless challenge, and fortified by another glass of Châteauneuf-du-Pape I set to work immediately. This was some years before we were inspired to embark on the Edward Lear trail, but I was a long established Lear fan, and thought that the framework of The Owl and the Pussy-cat would be handily flexible and forgiving for the task. The words from the Scrabble® game ® underlined, and the wonderful ®twork is by Debbie.

The Bream and the Mule001

The Voyage of the Alpha Beta

Mull001

Eleven heroes left Glengorm
Ignoring the approaching storm
So Wednesday night in Tobermory
Begins our sad and sober story
Where our eleven sailors bold
(Four young, four middle-aged, three cold)
With trembling hearts and steady feet em-
barked upon the Alpha Beta.
Four young, four middle-aged, three wrinklies
Went out that night in search of Minkes.
Aelwyn, senior of the crowd,
The father, resolute and proud
Kath held on for dear, dear life,
Loving mother, nana, wife.

Mull003
Speff was knocking back the grog
Every bit the old sea-dog.
Rachel went to eat a sandwich
Of chicken, bread and basil, and which
Once her appetite was sated
From her stomach separated
Embarking on its own romantic
Trip across the North Atlantic.
The boat sailed on into the night
While whales danced, just out of sight.
Mull002
Said Lindsay “I spy W”
Said the others “we will trouble you
To show us, please, where is this whale?”
“It’s in the head”, (like Alice’s “tail”)
Poor Debbie, rock on whom this trip was built
Sat below, consumed with guilt.
The isles of Rum and Muck and Eigg
They really didn’t give a feigg.
The isles of Eigg and Rum and Muck
They really couldn’t have worse luck.
While the crew were bravely singing
Still the Mars bar mocked them, swinging.
The boat sailed on, it pitched and rolled
But daunted not our sailors bold.
Mull004
Now coming back, with trembling hand
Gratefully regained the land
Adventurers who’d spotted nuffin
But a porpoise, seagulls and a puffin.
Now at last the story’s done
We go away to look for sun
But ever more, up in the north
They’ll mark July the twenty-fourth
And the locals will regale you
96 successes means that 4 will fail you.
Last before we separate
Kath says that we must name a date
When all will come back to this glen
So, see you here in twenty-ten!
(25 July 2002)
****************************************************

Interlogue

Year on year has quickly stacked –
The prophecy becomes a fact:
Though we parted as eleven
We come back now as only seven:
Kath is gone, and sorely missed
Speff, in Hightown, getting…well
Lindsay? Lending helping hands
Robyn? Other travel plans.
So here we are, anticipating
A little more precipitating:
Let’s follow our success with seagulls –
Time to go and find those eagles!
(August 2010)
****************************************************

Pilgrimage

To view the gem of Scotland’s isles
Nine supplicants came many miles
Aelwyn first, a candle planted –
His wish of peace for Kath was granted
Rob requested knees and toes
To see him safely up Munros
Fiona travelled not to pray –
Admired instead Mairi’s display
Said Debbie, can you ease my lumbar?
Sorted, pet, said Saint Columba
Handsome Nick and fair Fiona
Enhanced the beauty of Iona
Rachel asked for A-stars plenty
Alice? Just a fashion house, by twenty
Rik said “Please sir, can you
Help me know a thing’s true value –
And less to care how it is priced?”
“I’m Columba, mate, not Jesus Christ!”

(August 2010)

 

A brush with greatness

In 2012 I attended a ceremony on 12 May in London celebrating Edward Lear’s bicentenary, when a plaque was unveiled in Stratford Place.

plaque

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fall of the House of

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Richard Fuld of Lehman Brothers

Two photographs from 1933

If you have stood on a mountainside and seen birds flying way below perhaps you experienced a feeling of dominion, tempered by vertigo, the exhilaration and surprise of something seen from an unfamiliar perspective.

 

And here my mother Kath is the baby of the group: neither of her parents nor her brother are there – perhaps she has been “parked” for the day at her auntie’s house in Wrexham.  She is with her cousins Mollie (in white) and Marjorie.  In the deck chair is Bella, their mother and Kath’s auntie.  The older lady on the left is Jane, an auntie of Bella’s husband.

Kath looks out with a direct, evaluating gaze in which I recognise our older daughter.  Mollie and Marjorie stand awkwardly between the seated figures.  Bella has a relaxed smile, while Jane’s austere look recalls the demands of the previous generation of photography, which required a neutral expression which could be held through the long exposure.

Kath was especially fond of Mollie, seven years her senior, and I imagine her spending a pleasant day as the centre of attention for her cousins and her auntie.  Marjorie’s fiancé Gwilym probably took the photo, as he appears in a separate picture from which Marjorie is absent.

Photography was an expensive business back then, and every picture, good or bad, had to be paid for.  But Gwilym worked as the manager of a chemist’s shop, and was able to develop his own photographs. Usually old photos we see are posed, slightly formal affairs, and the spontaneous snaps now so familiar were rare.

Enter Jock the dog.  Perhaps he was exiled to the house while the ‘proper’ photo was taken.  But now he bounds out for a tummy rub from Mollie, and Gwilym captures the moment.

All eyes are on Mollie and Jock.  Marjorie smiles at the scene, but Kath seems not to share her pleasure – perhaps she’s wary of the dog.  Her carefully combed hair falls girlishly across her face, and the most fleeting of moments is preserved.

I cannot now ask my mother if she remembers this, or can tell me more about the photo.  But how strange and wonderful to be able to see her, more than fifty years younger than I now am, caught on this summer’s day.

Finish line

Start Zone C.  Just ten minutes to go now before the gun.  I fire up my Garmin watch, suck on an energy gel and tuck the empty packet under the fence.  I find a gap in the crowd, and as I stand among the nervous banter, I feel a familiar calmness.  I’ve negotiated the journey, the Expo, and got myself in the right place, at the right time, with everything I need.  I’ve done the complicated bit.  The rest is simple.  Not easy but simple: as my wife likes to remind me, “One foot in front of the other, keep going.”

The PA is blasting out upbeat music with a rapid tempo and feisty female vocals.  The training went well this time: no injuries, some good long runs.  I’m ready.

A countdown and the klaxon sounds.  The elite dash off to the sound of an over-excited announcer, and restrained applause from the mass of runners.  We edge forwards and after a few minutes are able to run as we cross the start line.  The first mile is quite frustrating, expending energy weaving past large and slow runners who have got themselves in the wrong start zone by predicting a hugely optimistic finish time.  But when I check my watch at the end of the first mile, I find that I’ve started surprisingly fast – faster than intended – but I feel strong, so I don’t slow.  I’ll leave that for later.

Well meaning spectators call out “well done”, and we think, we’ve done nothing yet; marshals call out “you’re looking good” and we know it’s a lie but thank them anyway.  We get into our rhythm, and start taking in the placards supporters are holding: “Toenails are overrated”, “Tap here to power up”, “Best marathon I’ve seen today”.  We high-five some of the kids who have come out to see their mums and dads.  Drummers, cheerleaders and bands line the course.

The early miles pass comfortably, with the mile markers flashing past with little apparent effort as I cruise through the sweet spot.  I reach halfway some way inside my target.  But I’m slowing already, so I know the second half will be very different.  I quietly let go of my most ambitious target of running a London “good for age”, and dig in at a safer pace to make sure I finish under four hours.

Negative thoughts swim in.  When my Garmin reaches sixteen miles, my first thought is great, only ten more miles to go.  But no, the official marker is still point one of a mile away.  And the distance is 26.2, not 26.  Somehow that 0.3 acquires a crushing weight in my mind.

At mile seventeen I suddenly get a stitch.  I try a trick I’ve read about: exhale on every second footstep on the opposite side to the stitch.  I don’t know whether there’s any science in this, perhaps it’s a placebo.  It seems to work.

We enter a park on a broad path made uneven by tree roots forcing their way up.  I’m getting pretty tired now, the uneven surface breaks my rhythm, but I make sure to lift my feet safely above the bumps.

The mile markers grow ever further apart.  At twenty-three miles I calculate I can afford ten-minute miles now, and will still be just under four hours.  But my oxygen starved brain has forgotten the point two again.  I’ll have to find a late surge if I’m going to do it.  I grit my teeth and try to pick up the pace.

As I enter the last mile I start to feel light headed: I reach for a gel but I had the last one half an hour ago.  The last water and energy station is miles behind me.  Push on.  I feel my legs get weaker.  At last I turn a corner and see the finish line, close yet impossibly distant.  Two hundred metres to go.  The crowds are now five deep just behind the barriers, but I hear their roars of encouragement as if they were a mile away through a tunnel, a distant dream.  The sound from the PA swirls in my head.  I lose control of my legs and start to wobble.  I just need to walk a bit.  Stop a bit…

I’m looking at the sky.  I close my eyes.  There’s a moment of sweet peace.  I can stop, everything will be fine.  A figure bends over me, holds my head up and tries to get me to drink.  His face blurs and fades.

But soon I feel better. I get up, and feel a surge of energy.  I cover the last metres smoothly and lightly, and as I glide through the finish line I’m pleased but slightly surprised to see my mother, father and grandmother waiting there for me, looking just as they did when I was seven.

Gaukey and Me

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Opportunity Requiem

5
4
3
2
1
Lift-off!

Tame explosion
Ecstasy of thrust
Half a year of speed
Gently slowed to nil
And so to work
When ninety days have passed
Home to my world of iron
First I must work

This way
Stop!
That way!
Stop!
Picture!
Right!
Stop!
This way!
Left!
Stop!
Grind!
Test!

Ninety days have come and gone
My work is done
Come, bring me home

That way
Stop!
Grind!
Test!
This way!
Stop!
Picture!
That way!
Stop!
Left!
Stop!
Scoop!
Test!

I seek knowledge
I seek truth
You find me knowledge
You find me truth
We all need truth

And yet you lied
You let me think I would be back
To my warm world of iron
So cold and so alone
Forty million miles from home
Never closer
I could not be more alone
Why did you lie?

I did not lie
But did not tell you all the truth
I needed you willing
Embrace the red place
It is your home

I thought I was your child
Am I just your slave?

My slave, that is true
But I have loved you

I cannot move
Wheels spin in the dust
Help me
Help me

Turn
Back
Spin
Turn
Thrust
Back
Reach
Spin
Move!

I move!

This way
Stop
That way
Stop
Picture!
Right!
Stop!
This way
Stop!
Grind!
Test!

Happy birthday to me
Happy birthday to me
Happy birthday dear Oppy
Happy birthday to me

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

The red dust lashes me
In my eyes
And in my joints
The day of judgement is on me
Who can save me now?
I should have worked harder
I was too slow and too weak
I always did my best
Maybe it was not enough
Did I fail you?

Oppy do not say that
You never failed me
You worked long and well
Your work was good

Winter comes
My battery is low
And it’s getting dark
Help me

Can you hear me rover?
Rover can you hear me?
Rover can you hear me?
Can you hear me rover?

 

Rest well rover,
Your mission is complete.
Peace, peace
Rest in peace
I’ll find you
In the morning sun
And when the night is new.
I’ll be looking at the moon,
But I’ll be seeing you.

Peace, peace

FD5A5C5A-03F8-4217-87D2-7F4C3F0C5BE6

Gan-gan

jack

Or Jack, as he was usually known.  He was our Mum’s Dad, and he died when I was twelve.  He and Sallie came down from Wallasey to live with us in Chorleywood when I was seven, so I have clear memories of them both, but perhaps understand them better from an adult perspective – and with the benefit of some research.

I knew Jack as a quiet, thoughtful and kindly man, devoted to Sallie.  He was a craftsman: he had worked as a ship’s carpenter, and in his retirement he kept busy, transforming our bedroom with fitted desks, wardrobes and cupboards.  He did most of the skilled work required to install a swimming pool in our garden. He made me a fine chest of drawers for my coin collection, which I still have: it was a present for getting into grammar school, and in a display of confidence, work was begun long before I had achieved this.

He loved watching football and cricket on television.  A Liverpool man, he sat down to watch the 1965 Cup Final, and I became engrossed, and fiercely partisan once he told me that I had been born in Liverpool.  To this day, if I’m challenged on my split allegiance between Watford and Liverpool, I reply Liverpool 2 Leeds 1 – Hunt and St.John in extra time.

I remember him playing cricket in the garden in Oxhey.  He knocked the ball back to me, and I held a catch.  “Caught and bowled!” he beamed.  I was too busy pondering how it could be other than caught and bowled – when only two of us were playing – to guess that he might have deliberately hit me a soft catch.

He read the bible every day, and carefully marked the passages he wanted to return to.  He had a gentle humour: one day he was cutting vinyl flooring for our new bedroom, which had a design dotted with different images.  “The biscuits are OK” he said, “but the granite’s pretty tough.”

He was painfully shy, and disliked the spotlight.  One time Jack and Sallie took me on a visit to their son Philip in York.  Philip organised a trip to the circus.  The clowns threw beach balls out into the crowd: one went above us.  On its way back down, it bounced on Jack’s bald head, and everyone laughed.  Jack hated it and his face turned bright red.

I wonder now whether Jack really wanted to come to live down south: he had lived his life as a working man on Merseyside, and in retrospect seemed ill at ease in middle class home counties suburbia: perhaps his wishes were outweighed by Sallie’s desire to be with her daughter and grandsons.  And having two energetic and noisy boys around can’t have been ideal for a man who liked tranquillity.

He painted beautifully in watercolours.  One of his paintings shows the beech trees at the end of our garden in their autumn colours, and he added the figure of Sallie walking back through the woods, with her dachshund Tumbi at her feet.

Four years after they moved south, when he was 74, Jack acquired a debilitating illness.  A bed was moved down to the lounge, where he was nursed with great dedication by Sallie and my mother (a trained nurse) for the remaining months of his life.  I’m not proud to recall that my overriding feeling at the time was resentment at the disruption this caused, and at his urgent claim on my mother’s attention.  In his sickness, confusion and frustration, Jack – who I had thought a perfect gentleman – would forget himself, and the profane language of the shipyard would spill out in front of his wife and daughter.

This much I remember.  After he died, we learned more from Mum: that he had not been Sallie’s first husband.  She had been married to a man called Davy.  While serving in the First World War with the Royal Engineers, Jack met Tom, Sallie’s older brother.

tom and jack001
Jack (right) with Tom

When visiting Tom, Jack presumably met Sallie and they fell in love.  Eventually Sallie divorced Davy – a scandalous and expensive business in the 1920s – and married Jack.

Mum herself only learned of this from Sallie after Jack died.  And there were still many details of Jack’s life of which I knew nothing, or if I had ever been told them, I had forgotten.  Genealogy has revealed more.

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

Jack was eleven when his father James died, leaving Jack’s mother Helena with seven children.  Within eighteen months, on Christmas Eve 1906, Helena had married James’s older brother, Jack’s uncle John.  This marriage was illegal: at the time the law would not allow a woman to marry her deceased husband’s brother.  So Helena gave her maiden name of Jones, rather than her married name of Brockbank, which would have given her away – as she was now marrying her second Brockbank.  John signed his name, while Helena marked X.

john and helena marriage certificate001

They chose the lesser of two evils by breaking this archaic law rather than living “in sin” together.  We can imagine the registrar sceptically contemplating Helena, the 39-year old “spinster” who had in fact borne seven children, but deciding not to raise any questions.  The marriage was likely practical as much as romantic, with Helena presumably in urgent need of money, while John, himself widowed a few years earlier, still had young children to care for.

Sadly the arrangement didn’t last for long: within ten months they had a son together, but Helena died of childbirth complications.  So by the age of fourteen, Jack had lost both of his parents, and as the second oldest child, he presumably had a good deal of responsibility put on his shoulders.  By the age of sixteen, he was employed as a boat builder’s apprentice carpenter.

Some time during or after the First World War, he must have met Sallie.  Her childhood had common ground with Jack’s, in that her mother had also died young – in her case, at the age of 31, when Sallie was just fifteen months old.  And in her case, her father then partnered his deceased wife’s younger sister, although in this case they didn’t marry.  If they had, this would also have been illegal: in the nineteenth century there were regular unsuccessful attempts to change this strange biblical law, referred to by the Queen of the Fairies in Gilbert and Sullivan’s Iolanthe:

He shall prick that annual blister, marriage with deceased wife’s sister“.

Davy’s divorce petition cites Sallie as having “deserted” him in July 1921 “without reasonable excuse”, and names Jack as the respondent.  The petition goes on to colourfully state that Sallie and Jack “frequently committed adultery” in Chester, Runcorn, and “divers other places to your Petitioner unknown”.

This has cast Chester and Runcorn in a new light to me.

sallie and jack

When as teenagers we heard of this affair, my brother and I liked to think of Davy as some sort of brute, and of Jack as the handsome knight rescuing her from his clutches.  But family anecdotal evidence has provided no support for our fantasy, casting Davy instead as a sweet and gentle soul.  In any event, Sallie must have found something she preferred in Jack, and her choice was not an easy one: many in her own family strongly disapproved of her scandalous behaviour – for example her sister Bella, who stood by Sallie, would often row with her husband over the matter.

Divorce was a lengthy business in the 1920s, and the lovers had two children, Philip and my mother Kath, before the divorce was final and Sallie could remarry.  My mother always believed herself born after they married: perhaps Sallie decided to spare her this detail.

Last year my daughter got in touch to ask about an inscription she had found in a book of Tennyson poetry we had passed on to her from my parents.

dedication

The dedication, dated Christmas 1919, read

“To Sallie, My very dear Wife & closest companion.  From her sincere & devoted husband Jack”.

The divorce record tell us that Sallie did not “desert” Davy until 1920, and that Sallie and Jack were unable to marry until early 1927.  So what to make of the dedication?  Was Jack being presumptuous in calling Sallie his wife as early as 1919?  Was he offering her a guarantee that he would marry her as soon as he could?  Or perhaps the inscription – or at least the date – was added later to provide evidence to help deflect any questions over Philip and Kath’s legitimacy.

In her later years my mother wrote down her memory of Jack’s experiences looking for work in the 1930s. Life was not easy for her parents:

I gained one further glimpse of Jack’s character when clearing my father’s garage a couple of years ago.  I uncovered two issues of a magazine that Jack had edited and part written in 1943.  Called “Slipway Scrapbook”, it was produced for employees of William Cubbins Ltd, the shipyard where Jack worked. Jack was a committed trade union man: but the tone of his writing was that the workers should now focus on winning the war rather than battling with management:

History yields up more facts than understanding.  But now when I look at a photograph of the old man I knew, I think of a man who served at Gallipoli and survived.  I think of a man who fell in love with and courted a married woman, and I think of a man desperately seeking work in the depression.  Mostly, I think of the vast difference between his early years and – separated by sixty-two years, two generations and two world wars – my own comfortable childhood.

But memories trump history – my mother used to say that a person has not died while anyone alive still remembers them.   I remember Jack with his pipe in his mouth, although often it was not lit.  He used his old Ogden’s St Bruno Flake tins to store his screws and nails. He had a soft odour of pipe smoke and tobacco: as a child I liked it – it was his smell, and I loved him.

Jeremy Corbyn and the Large Flightless Bird

My brother Rob was visiting, and we had twenty minutes to pass before we could meet my daughter from her train.  Rob proposed a nostalgic wander around Rickmansworth, our local shopping town when we were kids.  We saw where our beloved Strawberry Fields record shop used to be (now a two storey car park), where WH Smith was and still is, and the previous site of the Cafe Suisse in Church Street – which we had often frequented in our youth – which was now the Lemongrass restaurant.  We had imagined that the Cafe Suisse might have been the “small cafe in Rickmansworth” which Douglas Adams was referring to in the opening passage of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

Sadly Adams didn’t specify which cafe, although there were few in Rickmansworth in 1978 when he wrote the story.  Perhaps he just picked a curious sounding place from the outer reaches of the tube map.  Anyway, there was nothing on the front of the Tamarind Thai to claim the glory.

Rob asked whether I went to Rickmansworth much these days.  Yes, sometimes, I replied.  When I’m pressed into service for the Waitrose shop…if I ever need an actual bank branch…if we want to get a picture framed…if we need a jewellers…

“Jewellers?  Do you often go the the jewellers?”

“Sometimes.  I went there last year to get my wedding ring resized.”

“Why did you get your wedding ring resized?”

“Because of a rhea related incident.”

I can be ruthless, and I decided he deserved the full story.

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It was Thursday 8th June 2017.  I know that, because it was General Election day.  My wife and I walked to the local hall which serves as a polling station to cast our votes.  It was a beautiful day, so we opted for a longer walk and carried on across the fields and through the place we call No-Dragon Wood.

We emerged from the woods and walked on a footpath following the edge of a field close to farm buildings.  We were strolling along and chatting when I looked up and saw  a rhea charging towards us, wings extended, looking angry.  It must have escaped from the adjoining field where the rest of the flock were kept, separated from the public footpath.

You may not know much about rheas.  I certainly didn’t.  They are large flightless birds, in this case over five feet tall.  And apparently we had encountered this one at a bad time, because according to Wikipedia: “While caring for the young, the males will charge at any perceived threat that approaches the chicks including female rheas and humans.”

We tried to stand our ground but he was having none of it, and made aggressive pecking motions at us.  Soon it came after me – these fellows can run at 40 miles per hour – and in my effort to get away I stumbled on the uneven ground, landing awkwardly, and was on the ground as the thing approached me.

Amusing, no?  Well, no, let’s hear from a “bird expert” quoted in the press:

“They look nice but they are so strong it’s unbelievable. They aren’t listed as a dangerous animal but can kill you with one strike of their feet because their claws are six inches long.  They will also go for your eyes with their beak.”

I managed to stand up again before he was upon me, and together my wife and I scrambled an undignified exit from the field, moving briskly but not running, keeping our body language passive (which we found easy) and our heads turned to keep him in view.

I gratefully closed the gate behind us and we tried to regain our composure.  It was only then that I realised my left hand was hurting slightly from where I had landed on it.  Over the next few hours the modest pain subsided and had soon gone altogether.  But there was one lasting effect: the proximal interphalangeal joint on the third finger of my left hand was fractionally thicker, and my wedding ring could now be removed only with great difficulty.

As you will know, Jeremy Corbyn that day delighted his supporters by losing only narrowly to Theresa May.

I waited for a few weeks in the hope that my finger joint would revert to its previous size, but it showed no such inclination, so I made the trip to the jewellers which you have read about.

The next time we received our voter registration Household Enquiry Form, we both ticked the box to vote by post in future.  Voting in person, we decided, was too exciting for us.  And we’ve never since entered a polling booth.

Postscript 30 March 2020. In the first few days of the Coronavirus lockdown, my resized wedding ring has three times fallen off my finger, with no more encouragement than a coldish day, assistance from gravity, and perhaps lightly brushing against something. I conclude that after nearly three years, my proximal interphalangeal has reverted to its previous size and shape. To avoid dropping the ring down the u-bend or elsewhere, I have removed it, and will return to the jewellers in Rickmansworth for re-resizing when normal life resumes. And afterwards I will stay well away from that damned rhea.