In December 2009 I sat in the Birmingham office of an accountancy firm, turning in my hands a gemstone which had been valued at eleven million pounds. I had the chance to buy it. How much should I bid?
On 10th March 2009, Wrekin Construction, a private civil engineering business based in Shropshire with about 500 staff, collapsed into administration, owing creditors over £20m. Its main asset was a 2.1 kilogram lump of crystal, grandly described as the Gem of Tanzania in the company’s accounts, where it was valued at a princely £11m.
The stone had been discovered by Ideal Standards, a company mining near Arusha, a small town in northern Tanzania. Michael Hart-Jones, an investor in Ideal, bought the gem in 2002 for R200,000, or about £13,000.
Hart-Jones was a colourful character. He had been convicted of illegal diamond trading (wrongly, he said) in South Africa in the early 1980s. Then, according to official testimony from Ahmad Kabbah, the elected president of Sierra Leone restored to power in 1998, Hart-Jones had struck a deal with the illegal junta there the previous year to exploit its mineral resources, in return for facilitating a $1bn loan for the junta. Finally, a BBC2 Newsnight report from 2006 featuring Richard E Grant suggested that Hart-Jones had promoted a scam in Swaziland (now Eswatini) selling goat serum as an Aids treatment.
Mr Hart-Jones exported the ruby to the UK in 2002, but initially struggled to find a buyer. The next recorded owner was Tony Howarth, director of a foreign exchange company. Howarth sold the stone to Shropshire based businessman David Unwin in 2006, through a deal also involving land and Rolls-Royce cars, which valued the gem at £300,000. The gem was recorded at the same value on the balance sheet of Unwin’s company Tamar Group that year.
Tamar Holdings took over Wrekin Construction, and the gem received an astonishing revaluation to £11m in 2007:
Wrekin had acquired, at a cost of £11m in shares, what it described as “a ruby gem stone known as the “Gem of Tanzania”’ from its shareholder, Tamar Group Limited. The notes to the accounts went on to say that the fair value of the gemstone was determined by a professional valuer at the Istituto Gemmologico Italiano.
As it was purchased using shares rather than cash, the inclusion of the gemstone in the balance sheet at £11m helped raise Wrekin’s net assets from a negative £7.6m to a positive £6.3m. This made the company appear a more creditworthy partner for suppliers, customers and its bank, Royal Bank of Scotland.
Wrekin’s auditors for the nine month period ended 31 December 2007 were Ashgate Corporate Services Limited, a small Derby firm who had recently succeeded “big four” firm KPMG as auditors – a change which might itself have been read as a warning sign. Ashgate might have been surprised to see that a civil engineering business based in Shropshire, with turnover for the period of £60.9m and profit of £1.6m (against a loss of £9.5m the previous year) had decided to make a huge investment so far outside its core business.
A more alert auditor might have asked a few questions: most obviously, why would a construction company invest £11m in a gemstone? Was this a genuine arms-length transaction with its shareholder? Why had they chosen to get it valued in Italy? And why had nobody heard of this amazing gemstone, when the highest previous verifiable price for a ruby – the 8.62 carat Graff ruby sold by Christie’s in 2006 – was a mere $3.6m?
Ashgate were presented with a letter, purporting to be from the Istituto Gemmologico Italiano, confirming the valuation, and containing a photograph of the gemstone. That was good enough for them, and they duly signed off the accounts.
It is not known whether RBS’s decision to grant a £4.25m overdraft facility was influenced by the borrower’s ownership of the gem. According to a former Wrekin representative, RBS had lent the company £2.8m of that at the time of administration: perhaps they saved themselves the last £1.45m by finally taking a good look at Wrekin’s accounts.
Nor is it known what triggered the collapse of Wrekin Construction into administration, but it may be that bank lenders pulled the plug when they finally inspected the company’s balance sheet and saw what was propping it up. Initially Wrekin blamed RBS for its predicament because the bank would not extend credit to cover cash-flow problems.
Jonathan Guthrie of the Financial Times pieced together the story, and interesting and bizarre details emerged over the months of 2009.
Loridana Prosperi, a gemmologist at the head office of the Istituto Gemmologico Italiano in Milan, said of the valuation letter: “That is impossible, because we were on holiday on August 31 2007.” She said IGI never assessed the price of gemstones, only the quality – and the Valenza office did not even do that. It was soon confirmed that the valuation letter had been forged, but it was not established by whom.
Ernst and Young had been appointed as administrators, and they appointed GVA Grimley as their agents to dispose of Wrekin’s assets, of which the highest profile – if not the most valuable – was the gem. Ernst & Young consulted with experienced gemmologists, and determined that the ruby was opaque and of insufficient quality for faceting, meaning that it could be cut into smaller rounded, gems – or cabochons – but not into jewels with flat facets with an attractive sparkle.
They concluded however that if was of “sufficient quality and rarity” in its uncut state “to be of interest to public and private collections”. “It is not possible” they continued, “to place a value on the uncut stone, given its unique nature and consequent absence of comparable data. Any attempt to provide a potential range of valuations may prejudice future realisations”. In other words, because of its notoriety, the stone now had the potential to far exceed its value as a regular gem at auction.
It seems that top London auction houses rejected the gem because they deemed its value too low. Ernst & Young were reduced to advertising the sale in Rock ‘n’ Gem – a quarterly UK magazine, read by mineral collectors and devotees of “healing” crystals. The fact that Ernst & Young sought to sell the stone as a specimen was taken to imply that they were doubtful whether it could be cut profitably into individual jewels.
Hatton Garden gem dealer Marcus McCallum’s view was sought: “The Gem of Tanzania may not be worth the cost of the advert. A two kilo lump of anyolite (low grade ruby) is probably worth about £100. A valuation of £11m would be utterly bonkers.” Wrekin owner David Unwin was said by his lawyer to be “devastated” by the damage to his reputation caused by doubts over the value of the gem.
On behalf of Ernst and Young, GVA Grimley duly initiated an auction of the gem. The Financial Times saw it like this:
We should not, however, remember the gem as having failed to cut it as a polished crown jewel. It should instead be remembered as a staggeringly successful healing crystal. Though its mystical powers failed to prevent Wrekin Construction from folding, its mere presence on the company books clearly made group finances look and feel much healthier.
Like most new-age medicine, the stone derived its power from the faith of those who believe – in this case in its intrinsic ability to rise perpetually in value. The Gem of Tanzania was a magnificent placebo asset. In these straitened times, there must be many who would benefit from the gem’s awesome power. At the very least, the stone would make an excellent – if rather unattractive and unwieldy – paperweight. So, who will start the bidding?
I recognised a call to arms: here comes my cameo in this drama. 2009 had been an excellent year, and I had some cash to “invest”. The opportunity to acquire something recently so spectacularly valued was too good to ignore. The quality of the stone as a gem may have been questionable, but it was famous as the basis for a world-beating piece of bullshit. And my wife had a big birthday coming up. That could make a wonderful surprise gift. Er, couldn’t it?
I had very little idea where to pitch my bid: I can only repeat in my defence that, fuelled by the prospect of an excessive City bonus, I was feeling flush. I indicated what I regarded as a substantial bid to GVA Grimley. Within a few days they contacted me to advise me that I was among the top ten bidders, and offered me an appointment to view the gem.
So on a snowy 21st December I bunked off the morning at work (it wasn’t very busy) to attend Ernst and Young’s Birmingham office at 9:30 am to view the gemstone. Two men in suits ushered me into the presence of the stone. which I was allowed to handle. I solemnly turned it over for inspection. Of course I’m no gem expert, so I was none the wiser – it was a large, rough, reddish lump of rock, by no means beautiful.
They asked me if I wanted to increase my bid, and I did, slightly, to £5,679.00. As requested I left it with them for six weeks, while they continued to solicit bids and while the creditors’ committee decided on its course of action.
The 2nd February deadline passed and I had heard nothing. Growing impatient after a while, I contacted Jonathan Guthrie – journalists at the FT were still surprisingly accessible at the time, even supplying their email addresses under some articles – telling him that I had put in a bid and heard nothing back. I speculated that the administrators might have received better bids – or perhaps they were dithering about whether to accept the best bid. I was hoping that the FT would be able to flush out what had happened. Mr Guthrie did not disappoint: this appeared after a few days:
No prizes for identifying the “bidder anxious to know the outcome of the auction”. I thanked Mr Guthrie with the message “Anonymity at last!”
I can be a sore loser if I suspect the playing field has not been level, and wondered whether the new owner, Tim Watts, might have served on the Creditors’ Committee as his company Network Group was owed “several hundred thousand pounds” by Wrekin. This would have given him sight of all the bids, and given him “last looks” – i.e. the opportunity to enter a final winning bid just higher than the best on the table.
When I raised this question with Ernst and Young, they said in a carefully worded reply that “at no point during the Administration has Tim Watts been a member of the Creditors’ Committee” but that “following the receipt of this (successful) offer a member of the Creditors’ Committee declared a connection to the source of the bid, and from this point forward they had no further involvement in the decision making process to sell the Gem.”
Fair enough, but this still left open the possibility that the Committee member who declared his connection could have been advising the successful bidder of the progress of the auction. However, the Joint Administrator stated that he had “no reason to believe that the purchaser of the Gem was aware of the bidding position of other parties.” It struck me, though, that a Committee member who had relayed the auction prices to a contact would be unlikely to advertise the fact.
More persuasively, Ernst and Young advised me that my bid was the third highest in the auction, so that even without the winning bid, I would still not have been successful. So it was time for me to let it go: Mr Watts’ company had, after all, lost a substantial amount of money in the collapse of Wrekin Construction, and was merely trying to recoup some of it: furthermore my £5,679 was not close to his winning bid of £8,010. His was just better pitched, although it would still be interesting to know the level of the underbid.
Mr Watts continued to be bullish about the value of his new acquisition. He said “I got a jeweller friend of mine to look at it, and he instantly spotted around twenty beautiful deep red rubies on the surface.” Based on his friend’s valuation, Watts said the ruby could be worth anything between £300,000 and £2m.
But he went on to say that the only way to know for sure will be to bring in an expert: “We have identified that we are in need of a gentleman from a mining company in South Africa to come and join us at a dinner event to take it apart. We will have a little meal for the board of directors, with a bottle of 1948 ruby port which we still have in the cellar, and he will sit and chip away all night and we will watch the rubies fall out like pomegranate seeds.”
Disappointingly, this never happened. Although he estimated breaking up the stone would generate a return of at least £50,000, he kept the stone intact, believing, on the basis of interest from enthusiasts in the US, that he could get much more by selling the stone intact.
He eventually decided to to keep it, and was quoted in 2011 saying “If I ever get down to my last fiver and need a good bottle of Shiraz then I might do something with the ruby. For the moment I am going to keep it.”
And, if the radio silence on the subject for the last ten years is any guide, Mr Watts has not received an offer for the gem which has tempted him to sell the gem, and he still owns the fabled Gem of Tanzania. One day we might have a better idea of its true value, which might require someone to break it apart first. But that would be a shame. We need some mystery in our lives.
My father’s cousin, Rhys Jones (1903-1974) was called up in 1941, and served as a tank driver during the Battle of Normandy, landing on Gold Beach on D-Day, June 6th 1944. He set down his account of the war in about 1966, after retiring from running a shop in Llanuwchllyn in Wales. He wrote in Welsh, although he had been educated in English from the age of seven. His younger brother Arthur – who also fought in the Battle of Normandy – translated it into English – “a strict copy of the original, with no add-ons”, as he put it. There are some take-offs, however: Arthur said that he left out some sections or toned down the English translation to make it less disturbing to read.
Many thanks to Rhys’s daughter Mair and Arthur’s daughter Gwerfyl for permitting me to publish this on Ramblings. Mair cautions that “there are some inaccuracies in the telling…these were long ago, though very vivid , memories for him. The sequence of events is not always correct.” But this is a powerful, detailed and sometimes harrowing account of one man’s war, which doesn’t always show his fellow soldiers in a good light. It is left entirely in Rhys’s own voice, as translated by Arthur.
The story of Trooper Rhys Jones 7941218 of the 24th Lancers and 44th Royal Tank Regiment
When in 1941 I received my calling up papers and a postal order for the sum of five shillings, it was the equivalent of an earthquake in the lives of our small family. I was 38 years old, a sales representative by trade and lived, with my wife May and daughter Mair who was four years old, at Porthcawl near Bridgend, South Wales, a regular chapel goer and superintendent of the chapel’s Sunday School.
I was not a conscientious objector although I had a deep respect for the true objector, particularly the Quakers, but I had to face reality because the German Jews were people like ourselves and they were slaughtered in their thousands, therefore the time had come to stand, come what may, no matter what happened to family or skin. It was with a very heavy heart that I handed over the keys of the Austin 10 to my successor and with my wife and daughter took the bus to Bridgend to catch the train to Tidworth, and emotions ran high as I got on the train and left them on the platform. I was very open to these emotions and I had to fight to keep them under control, but like a cat who is determined to come into the house if you open the door a fraction it’s in like a flash, and there is a quiver in the lips and voice and tiny hot pokers behind the eyes, so that people realize that it’s not a strong man standing before them but a very emotional creature. But by telling myself off and blowing hard into a handkerchief I was able to control myself and turn to watch the countryside roll by.
When we reached Swindon I had to change trains. I could see several other men and youths who were on their way to swell the legions of the British Army that day. It turned out that there were 75 of us, many in my age group, the rest the 18-20 age group. I found out that 15 of them were Jones’s and that the group’s previous occupations varied from coal miners to actors. We were eventually kitted out and formed into two squads, and after a pep talk from the Colonel who told us if we passed our preliminary training in 6 weeks instead of the normal 12 we would be eligible for a week’s leave. We were ready to oblige!!
One thing caused me much anguish. I found out that I was the original wooden soldier. When the order came to fall in on the marker my muscles stiffened and my legs and arms lost all semblance of coordination. In hindsight I was probably trying too hard, but the fact remained I was hopelessly inadequate on the square. The answer was to bury myself in the centre rank and try and attract as little attention as possible. I was sweating profusely and had blisters on my heels, which eventually turned septic. I went to the M.O. and was excused marching to my and the squad’s huge relief. The leave was safe!!
In my barrack room I had two Welsh lads in the beds on either side Will Jones from Tonypandy and Alf Phillips from Mountain Ash who used to sing ‘How deep is the night’ and ‘Trees’ alternately. Alf’s voice was nothing to write home about but Will had a glorious voice.
I had many chats with Will particularly about the depression years in the 1920’s and 30’s and how he tried to keep body and soul together for himself and family. He spoke of how he and his ‘butty’ went to the Midlands to try and raise money- he did the singing and his friend collected the money. One warm afternoon they were in one of Birmingham’s main streets and when they came to a busy pub they decided to stop and try their luck. Will began singing and after a bar or two the ‘butty’ went in. Will finished his solo and as an encore started singing ‘Cwm Rhondda’. His friend came out looking well pleased, and they went up a side street to count the money and found that there was almost a pound there. Wil asked shyly ‘How did I sound’. Oh’ came the reply ‘Once I got through the door, there was so much noise I couldn’t hear a note!’ Unfortunately they discovered that Will had a serious eye defect and that was the end of his military career.
After a month’s training we were ready to do our first guard duty. Everything that could be blancoed was blancoed, the brasses shone brightly as did the boots. When we got to the guardroom the Orderly Sergeant had a shock – out of the twelve of us there were eleven Jones’s. My partner on duty was a Hugh Jones, a former clerk in the Municipal Office in Merthyr. On the 10-12 guard after 10.30 pm we had to stop everyone, and anyone without a pass was taken to the guardroom. I found that my partner was (a) extremely conscientious (b) slightly hard of hearing (c) had a lively imagination. He insisted that as he was the senior soldier, the responsibility was his. He was 7941215 Jones Hugh, I was 7941218 Jones R and therefore junior!. During the first spell of duty he failed to hear footsteps approaching until I told him and with the command ‘keep me covered’ jumped out to meet the foe. ‘Halt who goes there’ he cried. ‘Friend’ came the reply. ‘Advance to be recognized’ and the Sergeant Major appeared. ‘Pass please’ said Hugh ‘I haven’t got one I’ve only been to the Mess’ came the reply. You must come to the guardroom’ said Hugh and escorted the S.S.M. who was muttering imprecations to the guardroom. Very conscientious was our Hugh. On our second spell of duty, it was our duty to call the duty cooks. With difficulty we found the barrack room and in Hugh went to turn on the lights. There were about fifty men in the place but we had no idea who to wake, so Hugh shook the nearest to hand. Talk about bedlam as a stream of abuse hit him. We were told later that the men on duty had a towel draped over the bottom of the bed, but no one had told us!! This was the only time I shared duty with this Hugh Jones, and he receded into the mists of time!
There was another Hugh Jones in the squad and with Alun Griffiths the three of us became great pals. This Hugh came from a village near Dolgellau in North Wales and Alun from Ponterwyd near Aberystwyth, and I had a high regard for both. By this time we had finished with the square bashing and had moved on to driving, which suited me much better. After wheeled transport we went on to Bren gun carriers and then to tanks, Valentines and Matildas to start with. The three of us were already proficient drivers before joining up and had no difficulty in adapting to tanks, but Hugh was also mechanically minded and when the chance came to join a Cadre instruction course with the chance of a Home posting, Hugh whose wife was expecting a child took the exam and passed with ease, and so we lost Hugh to the Cadre.
Alun and I went on to the gunnery, firing everything from revolvers to the Besa (or the Beezer) as it was called – the heavy machine gun in the tanks. Both of us did very well. Then a weeks course on W/T and then we were ready for leave again. Before going on leave we received the news that the Cadre Course was too full and Hugh was back with us again, albeit three weeks behind.
After the leave came the posting. Thirteen of us were posted to the 24th Lancers. Shortly afterwards another posting went to the Middle East, among them Hugh. Before we leave Hugh whom we cannot allow to be swallowed up by the mists. We heard, when we were in Whitby, that he had been killed, but it later transpired that he was a prisoner of war. I met him after the war and he said when being questioned after being captured the German officer asked him if he was Welsh and where he came from and when he replied Dolgellau the officer said he knew it well because he used to stay at Barmouth – ten miles away! Shortly afterwards the tank went off with six of the prisoners on the back, the remainder, Hugh included, were told to follow in the tanks tracks. Of course as soon as they could the remainder went the other way and soon came to the British lines. In about a week they were captured again. They were shipped to Italy where they remained in a P.O.W. camp until the Italians gave up. Before the Germans arrived Hugh and a friend escaped to the mountains until the end of the war. If he had not tried for the cadre class he would have been with Alun and myself for three years before we went to the cauldron that was Normandy on D-Day. Remembering that, maybe he was better off where he was.
Back now almost to the start, we were almost like the Three Musketeers. One hot afternoon we were sitting on the grass having a lecture on gas warfare and half asleep. I heard a soft tenor voice reciting a Welsh hymn! He stopped after a couple of lines and I was able to help him. That is how I met Alun Griffiths from Ystumtuen, Ponterwyd, Aberystwyth. Welsh speaking, a fervent Welsh Nationalist whose heroes were Saunders Lewis and John Morgan Jones, Aberystwyth. Saunders Lewis’ articles in ‘Y Faner’ were the chief items of arguments between us. Hugh used to listen to us arguing with an smile on his face when the arguments became fierce. To my mind Saunders Lewis was like an angry wasp stinging indiscriminately. In Germany he would have long been a poor bit of soap and in Russia would have excavated his weight several times over in the salt mines. He was a great dramatist and a distinguished author – though I must admit that most of his writings went over my head. Of course all these arguments and discussions used to draw the attention of others in the room and some used to say that we should only speak English in the British Army. We used to counter that we were perfectly ready to go home and leave them fight their own battles, but that we would continue to speak our mother tongue. One, Corporal Bennet, said that all minor languages should be outlawed and everyone should speak English only. A few Scotsmen bridled at this and one Cockney asked ‘What’s wrong with them, I like to hear them jabbering’. Three or four English lads backed him up and with that Bennet gave up – sunk without trace!!
Early one morning thirteen of us left for the north. We bade Hugh and the rest farewell. On leaving Tidworth (I never saw the place again) we journeyed north through York to Scarborough and waited there for a lorry to take us to Whitby and it was a blessed relief to arrive. Next day we were allocated to various squadrons. Four of us went to B Squadron including Alun and myself. The Squadron Leader was Major Fitzhugh who then further segregated us into troops, Alun went to the second and I to the third. The troop leader was away and a few days elapsed before I saw him. To say that he was disappointed in me is an understatement. I was too old, not tall enough, but he was prepared to give me a chance to reach the high standards he expected before getting rid of me. He was very haughty and I was surprised to learn that he was a dog breeder in civilian life.
Anyway in a couple of weeks time the squadron went down to Pembroke for test firing, leaving us behind to guard the family silver and came back with an odd tale about our officer. During a misfire the gunner after attempting twice to fire had to wait a few seconds and then open the breech. The loader then had to take the dud out of the breech and hand it over to the tank commander who was to throw it out of the turret. This is what happened in Pembroke. There was a misfire and when the loader took out the shell there was no one there to pass it to, the poor loader had to struggle out himself with the dud, fortunately it did not go off and although the incident was hushed up, the officer was out of favour with the C.O. for some time.
We move forward three years and by now the officer was a three pipper and second in command of ‘C’ Squadron, we were near a village called St Pierre. ‘C’ went to assist some infantry while we were in reserve and listening to the radio traffic on the headsets, A call for help came from one of the troops whose officer had been injured. We heard the C.O. ordering the second in command to go and assist and he answered ‘Roger Wilco Out’. Then Charlie Baker twice asked to report my signals, but no reply. It turned out that as soon as he got out of sight he had ordered his tank to lie up and ignored all signals. When the squadron pulled back,someone went to look for him and that was the end for that officer
Back to Whitby. There was one other Jones I should refer to. Lewis Cuthbert Jones was about my age from a well known family in Neath. He had had a good education and had been in Persia with one of the oil companies. He had been a sergeant in the Home Guard. We called him Lewis or L.C. but he was called Cuthbert at home. He was a lovely man and most interesting when in a good mood, but was prone to deep depression when he used to turn his head to the wall and nobody could console him. Outside the camp I had little to do with him. He had much more money than I did and he was fond of hard liquor and so the division was natural. I was sorry to hear that he eventually succumbed to his depression. In his company I got to know the meaning of ‘charming. He went to Squadron A and I saw very little of him afterwards.
I’ve mentioned Alun without giving much detail. He was about five foot eight tall, blond haired and blue eyed and the picture I have of him is him half lying on his bed writing with a long stemmed pipe in his mouth almost resting on his stomach and scratching his cheek with his fingernail. He was always ready to help and many times helped to get me ready to go on guard-the job I hated most. He was a good debater and thought the world of Aberystwyth. I was stupid enough once to praise Whitby in comparison to Aberystwyth. The blue eyes flashed and I was overwhelmed by a torrent of words, and there was nothing for it but to make a ‘strategic’ withdrawal! He was kind enough to write a few verses when I reached my fortieth birthday. I suppose it’s about the only time that will happen!. We were together for three years and I’m glad to say that he came home unscathed and I had the pleasure of his company many times in later years. In a turbulent four years I consider his company to have been pure gain.
Back to the story! The Valentines that we had were too slow and undergunned, I was by this time a Driver Mechanic receiving the princely sum of sixpence a day extra. I remember once on my first outing with a new crew, the oil pressure failed and I was forced to pull up. Eventually the fitters arrived and diagnosed a broken oil pump. Consequently it was much later when it was repaired and the officer hadn’t a clue which way to go ‘That’s easy’ said the fitter, ‘follow the trail of damage’, which we did and later we rejoined the rest in a field and prepared for the night. At this time another troop was formed and I found myself in it and so bade goodbye to the haughty officer. My new officer a Lt Webb, a schoolmaster in civilian life. A tall man who carried his head slightly to one side. A sombre and serious man, seemingly devoid of humour, who worked hard himself and expected everybody else to do the same.
I remember doing guard duty one night when Mr Webb was the Orderly Officer, things were quiet after the last of the passes had returned from the nearby town and I could see Mr Webb coming up and I had the chance to warn the Orderly Sergeant before challenging ‘Halt who goes there.’ He replied ‘Orderly Officer’ and I said ‘Pass Orderly Officer’. He came up to me and asked ‘Why did you not say ‘Advance to be recognized?’ I replied ‘because I recognized you twenty yards away sir’ to which he said ‘Oh I see, but you should always go by the drill book.’ He was a man for crossing the t’s and dotting the i’s but I found him a very good officer, very fair with great concern for his men. May his soul rest in peace for he was killed early on in the campaign in France. Shortly after his death a parcel arrived addressed to him and his crew. When opened there were five medallions and picture of St. Christopher, plus a letter from Mrs Webb saying she was sending them on after having them blessed by some Archbishop. They arrived too late for him, poor soul.
By this time we had new tanks, Crusaders, which were much faster than the Valentines, but had the same popgun. Then came Centaurs with their six pounders but eventually the American Sherman came with a 75mm gun and weighed just under 35 tons. The engine was of course my prime interest with its Chrysler engine of 450 h.p. and a petrol consumption of two gallons a mile. It’s main drawback was its height and as we found to our cost, its armour plating was no match for the 88’s and a distinct tendency to go on fire when hit. They were not called ‘Tommy Cookers’ for nothing. When the Firefly with its 17 pounder arrived much later on things evened out somewhat.
Things were always changing in the army. We troopers were the only constant, and we were always on the move. From Whitby we went to Crowborough, Sussex then to Castle Martin in Pembroke then to Thetford in Norfolk and on to Bridlington, a short time at Kirkcudbright then to Milford near Southampton and from there to Normandy. When in Crowborough we had a ‘leave’. It happened that my wife and daughter had gone to stay with my mother at Llanuwchllyn near Bala, North Wales, so I asked for my railway warrant to be made out there. I was working on the tank one morning when the Major came up to me and asked what connection I had with Llanuwchllyn. I explained that my mother lived there and I had a brother who was farming in the area ‘Where’ he asked and I replied ‘Pantgwyn’, ‘I know the place well’ he said and had been shooting there with his ‘kinsman’ Sir Watkin Williams-Wynne. He chatted about the area for about half an hour. When he left I continued with my work. Before I had really settled down the all too familiar voice of the Sergeant Major cut in ‘What did the Major want’? I explained, to which he replied ‘He was with you long enough’ and off he went. The Sergeant came, ‘Taff what did the Major….?’ and so on. I had to abandon work on the tank that day. For one who normally kept his head down, a visit from the ‘Boss’ stood out like a sore thumb!
We did various exercises and schemes. We had visits from officers who had returned from the Middle East and Italy who lectured us on what the enemy had in store for us. One stands out in my memory – a Captain Baum who was an expert on guns and firing, he had a slight speech defect. He fired a question at a trooper who also stuttered. When the unfortunate man tried to reply, the Captain, rather red in the face thundered ‘What is your name’ H-H-h-Hawkins’ came the reply ‘H-h-Hawkins are you m-m-mocking? ‘N-N-No Sir said the poor chap ‘I s-s-stutter’. ‘Oh I see’ said the Captain ‘come and see me after the lecture and I’ll give you the name of my doctor, he cured me.’
Looking back, the instructors laid far too much stress on camouflage and urged us to use camouflage netting and hide under trees to hide ourselves from enemy aircraft. So doing we would gain an advantage on attacking forces. The idea was all right but when we got to France we hardly saw the Luftwaffe and we did most of the attacking. The habit of hiding under trees cost us dearly, especially in tank commanders who were about fifteen feet up and very vulnerable to air bursts and mortar fire.
I have mentioned my ‘wooden soldier’ trait. When in Thetford our division had a marching competition and much to my despair our troop won and I was in a real panic when we were chosen to represent the 24th Lancers in the final test. But there was nothing for it but to go, and after being smartened up, away we went. Two Guards Drill Sergeants put us through our paces, and then we were lined up in ‘open order’. Two members of each troop were to be called before the Major General to be questioned. In our platoon the first to be called was Griffiths A. and away Alun went. When he came back- Jones R.! Oh well!! One pace back, left turn and the little wooden soldier went to meet the only general he ever met face-to-face. I halted, gave the man a heck of a salute and in a clear voice said ‘7941218 Jones Rhys. Trooper’ then ‘You come from Wales, Jones?’ ‘Yes Sir.’ ‘Where do you live?’ ‘Porthcawl, Sir.’ ‘I come from Brecon’ he replied. For a second I was speechless then out came ‘Oh Cymru am Byth Sir’. He was obviously pleased and gave me a warm smile. ‘You may return now.’ ‘Yes Sir, Thank you Sir.’ another salute, two steps back, right about turn, and back to the obscurity of the centre rank.
No we didn’t win but the Sergeant Major said to me of my solo run ‘By God Jones, I thought you were going to fall over when you did the right about turn, after speaking to the General.’ Enough said!!
The tempo rose as the months passed. Old faces vanished and some hard weeding among the officers. We had already been within a whisker of going to North Africa, where the First Army was in some trouble. We had our embarkation leave and I arranged with my wife that If I finished my letter with ‘Yours truly’ she would know not to expect a letter from me for some time.
We started very early one morning and drove through the dark to Newmarket, loaded the tanks, then the long slow journey to a port near Helensburgh beyond Glasgow. The tanks were loaded on to the ship and then most of us boarded the train to join the troopship.
When we reached Glasgow we had a message that plans had been changed, so back we went to unload the ship and back to Newmarket where we were given leave to make up for our disappointment!! About this time we were taken out of the 11th Armoured Div. (flash, black bull on a yellow backing) and joined the 3rd Armoured Brigade (flash, fox’s mask). There were three regiments 3-7 Dragoon Guards, The Sherwood Rangers and ourselves. The first two had swimming tanks, we had tanks which could wade up to about ten feet of water.
We were sent to Milford on Sea to a small Manor house with the Isle of Wight across the Solent. By this time Mr Fuller was our troop officer, a lovely man and a real gent. Anyway it was my habit to write in English to my wife but in Welsh to my mother. Lt Fuller came to me one day and told me he was sorry but if I continued to write in Welsh my letters would be delayed as there was no one in the regiment who could understand what I had written. ‘Oh’ I said ‘there’s no hurry’. Then the Squadron Leader came in and in a very civil tone explained about any delay. ‘That’s all right Sir’ I replied. In my letter I had told my mother to give my regards to the Rev. Dr I.D.Jones. When my mother finally got the letter she was baffled but my uncle spotted it at once and said ‘He’s in Bournemouth.’ The Reverend had for many years been a minister at Bournemouth, but had retired and moved to near Bala.
We went from Milford to a holding camp at Winchester where we were fed by the Americans but had the chance to explore one of England’s oldest cities.
After one false start we went to Southampton and embarked in a whale of a ship called the ‘John I Jones’ an American owned and manned ship. Ours was the last tank to board. The food was American and strange to my tastes, things like peaches and meat, a spoonful of potatoes and a little bread. Gallons of coffee. They were very kind to us for the four days we were on board.
One day the heavy guns of the Navy were enough to deafen anyone and the air was filled with aircraft in their thousands going back and forth. By about two o’clock the ship had gone as near the shore as she could and we waited while a large raft came alongside and started loading. The lorries first of all and then the tanks. We drove slowly on to the barge in case it capsized. The raft was so long the helmsman had great difficulty in keeping it heading for the shore, but land was slowly getting nearer. The co-driver and I were sealed in and eventually the order came ‘Start up, Taff’ and into the water we went and slowly drove on to dry land. I believe that our tank was the first of our regiment to land. We landed at 6.30 on June 6th. Our D-Day had arrived!
What was the reaction? Fear certainly with the heart pounding away. The bodies floating in the sea were proof that this was no child’s play, but you had to hide your fears and listen carefully to the tank commander’s directions as we were still under seal and could see very little ourselves. The vision through the periscope was minimal and we had to rely on someone who could see what was going on. I saw a row of men coming to meet us with their hands on their heads – those were the first P.O.W.’s for me to see. We went out of the village into a large field to wait for the regiment to assemble. In the next field a cow lay feet up to show that everything was endangered here.
The morning came and we saw some planes flying in from the sea. Suddenly someone started firing at them from between us and the sea. Some of the enemy were still around and we must have bypassed them the previous evening. Shortly afterwards three of our tanks went by with infantry aboard and later we heard the noise of the 75’s and chatter of Brownings, and the noise of the enemy’s mortars in reply. Shortly afterwards the tanks came by again with the troops giving the thumbs up. The 24th Lancers were in business!! That is what happened for the first couple of days, mopping up and disposing of snipers who were causing much damage and casualties to the soft skinned vehicles. These snipers were very prone to hide in church towers and it became the habit to plaster any church tower as you approached.
We were used to seeing corpses both German and ours. Mr Fuller once complained to me that the Germans always fell face down, while ours fell face up! The regiment moved on, about 60 Shermans and some smaller Honeys. On the road I saw a young girl on her knees praying and making a sign of the cross. I would like to say that this first action of ours was a success, but it turned out to be a bit of a fiasco. At first we were fired at from some trees, to which we replied vigorously, then things quietened down. About a mile ahead there was a river bridge, one of the Honeys started to cross but was hit by an A.P. and stopped, blocking the bridge. I saw our troop sergeant walk past, I couldn’t understand and I heard from my tank commander that the sergeant’s tank had been hit. I asked what had happened to the rest of the crew and heard that Mr Fuller’s crew were helping. Later we heard the story. The sergeant’s tank was hit, killing Hearn the co-driver, the driver was badly burnt and died later. The gunner was blinded and the wireless operator was in shock – he was only twenty years old.
The three were put on Mr Fuller’s tank leaving the body behind. Perhaps I am biased but I had scant regard for professional soldiers, think of it, the regiment’s senior sergeant abandoning his crew to their fate and walking away, not in a blind panic, that I could have understood and forgiven. The sergeant lost his stripes and transferred to the A.D.C. I saw him once later in Leopoldsville in Belgium and he told me he hoped to get his stripes back before long.
That was the start of heavy losses, and fierce fighting. I remember being told to rest early one afternoon because we were due to take part in a night action. Now I have always hated driving in the dark, my night vision is not good. I couldn’t settle down, thinking of the seven tanks that were left out of eighteen. I walked back and fore and was rather downhearted, Mr Fuller came up and asked if I had heard the order to rest. I replied that I intended to do so immediately. He replied that there was no hurry and asked what I thought of things. I told him I felt downhearted and that the best thing would be to get a ‘cushy’ wound. He tried to cheer me up by saying our old friends, the 11th Armoured would arrive soon as they had been held up by bad weather. I had a very high regard for Mr Fuller who had been very kind to me all along and had got me leave when my daughter became ill when we were at Thetford. Anyway night eventually arrived and we had to move forward and in time there came the dawn. After a bit of a skirmish we were told to go to a hedge to watch a copse of trees where Germans were hiding. I turned the tank so that it faced the hedge, for two reasons. It reduced the target to any lurking 88 and it gave my co-driver and myself the chance to see what was going on! Len Guest was the W/O, he loved to play chess and he had a board with pegs so that we could move the board back and forth without upsetting the pieces. I found this a great help, it helped to reduce tension, even though I was soundly beaten more often than not.
There were fluctuations between two extremes at this period. One was either bored stiff or scared stiff!. We were sitting by that hedge all of three hours without a sight of the enemy and after a peek through the periscope I started writing a letter. ‘Dear family, I hope this letter finds you as it leaves me – in good health.’ There was a huge explosion and my tank commander yelled ‘Start reversing for God’s sake’ We went back through the hedge and I could see the officer’s tank like a firework display. Fortunately the crew escaped with burns and shock and the officer was wounded in the ‘ham’. He was wounded again outside Brussels and killed near Hamburg about an year later. One of the best.
‘The weather is getting much better..’ the letter continued! The following day was a bad day for the squadron. In the morning Major Bennet, the Squadron Leader was wounded, early afternoon Captain Jock Kerr was killed – a lovely Scot. Sir Robert Arbuthnot came to take charge of us and was killed less than half an hour later. Only two officers remained, ‘Pip’ Williams and Cummings and they were not friends.
A call came over the radio, ‘Baker Williams to Sunray over’. Pip Williams answered. Silence. Then ‘Baker Williams to Sunray over’ with emphasis on the Sunray. Then came the reply. I am Sunray’ from Pip.
A few days later came the complaint that someone was firing at us from the rear and the 11th Armoured presented themselves. Shortly afterwards we were withdrawn and that was the end of the road for the 24th Lancers. Many of our officers came from the 17th-21st Lancers whose motto ‘Death or Glory’ is well known. I am afraid that we had more of the first than the last. In fact our casualty list read more like an electoral register than anything else, so much so that it was decided to post the remnants to other regiments, and the question was what was our fate to be. Lt. Pip Williams asked me to leave the crew and go as his driver, but I asked to be excused as the rest of the crew and myself had been together from the start, apart from the tank commander, we knew each others ways and trusted each other. The news came that we were to go to the 44th R.T.R. I heard that Alun (Griffiths) was to go to the Fife and Forfar Yeomanry. A truck came to pick us up and away we went to face the future. The memories of times past remained. One of those memories was of my sister Margaret, a hospital matron, who on occasion used to send a parcel containing a Canadian Red Cross packet of ‘Compo’ cocoa, a mix of cocoa, dried milk, and sugar which when mixed with hot water produced a delicious drink. and my stock was high in the troop while the cocoa lasted!!
One day in Normandy a very similar parcel arrived, although I could see that it was not my sister’s writing, the lads gathered round in expectation as it was opened and it was more in anguish than anger that the cry of “bloody nuts” went up. My uncle Tommy, an invalid had been laboriously collecting the nuts from hedgerows near his home to send to me!
We went to the outskirts of Caen, and after a word of welcome from the colonel then on to the echelon. They were still Shermans but this time with Whirlwind engines, much less powerful than the Chrysler engine I was used to, but I soon got the hang of it. The regiment came from Bristol originally and had fought in the Middle East, Italy and now France. They were not as regimental as the Lancers which was a relief to me personally.
After receiving losses in the battle for Caen we went back to the Bocage which was not tank terrain as it suited the 88’s to a ‘T’. We were pressing the enemy hard and with the Americans approaching from the other side, we pressed hard to cut the enemy off at Falaise. It was hell on earth, my new tank commander was a Sergeant and as the gun was a 17 pounder I had no co-driver as his place was filled with ammo-racks.
We had been there some time when there was a huge explosion. I looked back and saw Len Guest lying on the floor of the turret with his eyes open. The gunner was shouting ‘Help me Taff’. Out I got and into the turret. The commander was seriously injured. I got hold of him and told Charlie Price the gunner to tell the Squadron Leader what had happened. We were told to withdraw to our previous position and slowly that is what we did. By the H.Q. a house had been taken over as a first aid post. We got the commander out alive but poor Len had to be lifted through the hatch. The place was like an abattoir and we had to clean the place up before the blood dried – anything to keep us going. Afterwards we went to see how the tank commander was getting on. He had received a blood transfusion and things were looking brighter for him. They had buried Len with about 15 others. We received a new tank Commander and wireless operator and back we went to the fray.
That night on the radio came the news that the Government had raised the allowance on orphaned children from ten shillings to eleven shillings and sixpence. Oh well!!
The cream (prisoners of war) were increasing as was the tempo. ‘Press on regardless’ was heard with increasing frequency on the radio. The rumour was that there were Tigers ahead. The Fireflies with their 17 pounders led the way. We got to a village and by the first house a one armed man in some uniform – railway or post office – gave us a lovely salute, grinning from ear to ear. About fifty yards away round a bend an old lady with one finger in her mouth and pointing up at the roof which was on fire. ‘Half a mo, Taff’ said the commander and tried to douse the flames with an extinguisher. In less than half a minute the radio began to utter imprecations and we had to proceed. We came to a school which had been turned into a First Aid Post by the Germans and two of them with Red Crosses on their arms stood there. In the end we were met by a squadron of Churchills coming the other way. The eggshell had broken. It had been some day.
What amazed me was the way the Germans relied on horse transport. There were hundreds of them alive and dead, usually in pairs, one dead or injured and the other standing patiently by its side. ‘Drive on’ was the cry and sometimes there was no way to avoid it but we had to drive over dead or dying animals. Suddenly the Germans gave in and then came the ‘cream’ thousands of them. I saw one line, three deep as far as I could see with lorries, cars and tanks including some Shermans nose to tail for miles. The peace and quiet after the continuous firing was a godsend. Not so the nights. The usual way for a tank crew to sleep was to tie the tarpaulin to the tank track, lay out the bed and then fold the tarpaulin back over the bed to cover and tie it to the top track. The trouble was as the night wore on the heat from the sleeping crew reached the mangled remains of horses etc on the tracks so that an awful putrid smell filled the ‘tent’. One of our crew boasted that he could tell from the aroma what we had crushed during the day, cow horse or German !!
We had a few days to do a bit of maintenance on the tank, the gunner changed the barrels of the machine guns and cleaned the main gun while I looked after the Whirlwind – an old aero engine by all accounts. It drove the tank quite well on hard ground but on soft ground it was like a snail, particularly when going through hedges when we were in a hurry normally. After a short break we were to start on an amazing journey, a tragi-comedy of a journey across France, Belgium and Holland. To explain about myself, I tried hard to remain impersonal about the enemy. To me, he was just an ordinary chap, like me, called to serve his country. This was not how the French, Belgians and Dutch looked at them, and their treatment of prisoners of war was vicious at times. However away we went, when we entered a village, church bells were ringing like mad. An occasional banner with ‘Welkum’ on it across the street. Then away out of the village, the noise of firing, a battery of 88’s, one or two tanks going up in flames, the rest firing at the battery until it was silenced, then on again.
Occasionally a small group of Germans waited by the side of the road to give themselves up. Once we were in the third tank and I saw a group of about a dozen waiting to surrender, their arms piled up nearby. The leading tank stopped, suddenly a Frenchman grabbed a rifle and shot one of the Germans, then danced around his body in high glee. The remaining Germans ran for cover behind the tank. The radio started demanding an explanation for the hold up, and the officer explained what had happened. ‘Push on’ was the order, but the young lieutenant refused quoting the Hague Convention and the rights of P.O.W’s to safety – the first time I had heard of it. Shortly the infantry arrived and away we went. We travelled 63 miles that day and I had to pour in 120 gallons of petrol to slake the tank’s thirst.
Around this time we reached a sizeable town, Chartres I believe, or a similar name. I was in the leading tank when we reached the huge square of the old town and the welcome was ecstatic. A procession was formed and paraded around for a while before forming a circle and in the centre a group of young women were put on a bench and had their heads shaved. Some of the girls wept, while others seemed unconcerned. Their crime was to have been too friendly towards the Germans. Orders came through to continue and with the usual scout car ahead, away we went. We had only gone about a quarter of a mile before we met a German scout car coming at break neck speed. We saw one another at the same moment. The Germans did a hair raising turn and two men jumped out and legged it down a lane.
It happened so quickly that no one had time to react and away we went until we reached the Belgian border. The whole journey has left my memory a little vague but I remember entering an industrial city (Liege??) where we were welcomed with clenched fists. Not in a threatening manner – they were Commies. We had one particularly eventful night. To the right of us were the Welsh Guards being welcomed into Brussels. To the left were the Canadians attempting the same thing at Antwerp. Ahead of us was the real German Army. These were attempting to get back to Germany but to get there they had to get past us. They were very determined and the battle lasted most of the night with very hard fighting, Whatever could be said of us as attackers, we were very doughty defenders. About four in the morning the Germans withdrew, but they were a pain in the Canadians’ side for a long time. We had to slow down, our lines of communication stretched back to Normandy, by now many miles in the rear.
Our food arrived in packages lettered A to G. The last was the most popular because it contained canned fruit!. The most difficult thing to get right was the compo tea. The usual drill was to dig a hole, pour in some petrol put on a ‘dixie’ full of water with a match floating on top to take away the taste of smoke. Stand back and throw a lighted match into the hole. Wait for the water to heat up, but not boil, and then add the compo. If the water was not hot enough the tea would come to the surface, if too hot the milk would rise in lumps to the top and then you’d get the ‘sack’ until your turn came round again!. When it was too ‘hot’ outside the tea would be made on the turret floor on the little primus. This needed continual pumping and the water took a long time to get hot enough. Often when almost ready the order would come to move, so the labour was wasted. This job was done by the W/O. Talking of Wireless Operators around this time our W/O was wounded, not badly fortunately and we had a Lance Corporal Baldwin in his place. I did not know him but had seen him around H.Q.. When we started the next attack I heard an odd noise coming from the turret, I turned round and could see the L/C in tears. He cried and sobbed for two days before we could get rid of him. Our term for this was ‘slap-happy’. My most difficult period was during the last few weeks of the war when I found it difficult to leave the safety of the tank. This I had to do, to answer the call of nature and my normal duties around the tank. But by talking sternly to myself I could force my body to move.
I saw only two, outwardly at least, who were completely unafraid. One was the Major of the Squadron, the other the Sergeant Fitter from Bristol. I remember seeing him, when a shower of H.E. exploded over our heads, lighting his pipe as casually as if waiting for a hailstorm to pass while sheltering under the lee of the tank. I understood he was a window cleaner in civvy life. Certainly I was not of the same mould and I did not intend leaving my wife and daughter to enjoy the largesse of the government if I could help it.
After a spell of peace and quiet we were on the move to Holland. We followed the Guards Armoured Div and Eindhoven was the first place we got to. The welcome was the same as usual and we were held up. I put my head out of the hatch and noticed an old chap trying to attract my attention, he stretched up and gave me a wooden clog. I have it still. The order came for us to move and when I had the chance to look I saw he had put his name – A.C. Jongol – in indelible pencil and his address, but the address was not clear. I wondered what his intentions were. This was an odd campaign, the roads were narrow for scores of miles and the terrain on either side was enemy held and they were causing chaos. I missed some of it. I had slipped and hurt my knee which had swollen badly and I was unable to depress the clutch. After two days the rest of the crew turned up after coming second best to a Tiger. We had a four day break and then a new tank. By this time it was obvious that this nut was too tough to crack. The Guards got to within a couple of miles of Arnhem but no further.
About this time I was transferred (no fee paid!!) to be the Squadron Leader’s driver. My predecessor had erred badly by leaving his tank at every available opportunity to loot any nearby house. ‘Liberate’ was the word used and although his mate had been killed by a booby trap he was undeterred. This was the ugly side of war – the ruthless pillaging of ordinary people’s homes looking for anything sellable by those who had come to liberate them. These lads were great in every other respect, but property brought out the animal in them.
Our next job was to clear the left hand side of the road and take the town of Tilbert. I remember the odd signs that met us there “Goodbye Hello”. The news came that the Germans had attacked the Americans and were threatening Eindhoven. I noticed that the infantry were the South Wales Borderers. The action was short and fierce and the Germans retreated.
By this time winter was upon us and the weather got much colder. The engine turned a large fan to prevent over-heating the engine. This fan took its air from the turret which cleared the fumes when firing but made the drivers and co-drivers seats a very draughty place indeed. I noticed that my new co-driver Jim Wassal wore only denims over his underclothes, while I had my underwear, khaki battledress and then a tank suit over that. When I asked him why he said ‘Fire,Taff.” According to his reckoning he would have five seconds to bale out to avoid been burned to ashes when we were hit. He looked at me with pity and said ‘You’ll never make it.’ Make it or not as the weather got colder I added a pullover and Balaclava while Jim shivered by my side all gooseflesh. We found ourselves back over the Dutch-Belgian border and the H.Q. was established in the Customs Officer’s house.
One night the news came that a German patrol had landed on our side of the river. I was told to inform the troop that were mounting guard that night and away I went. I reached the house and up the stairs. Seeing a light in one of the rooms I entered. There lying in bed were a man and wife both elderly, looking with staring eyes under their night caps at the apparition who had burst in. I smiled and apologised in English, closed the door, up another flight before I found the H.Q. I could well have spoken to the old couple in Welsh for all they could understand – they were Walloons.
I had a home leave at this time and it was good to be home but the time passed too quickly and back I came to find myself in another part of Holland The first night I was billeted with a farmer and his family. That evening they started singing something similar to a national anthem. I asked if it was the Dutch national anthem but they shook their heads and said ‘Limberg’ or something similar, it may have been a province.
The following day we attacked a small town, without much opposition. The only obstacle was that the roads were strewn with mines and two of our tanks lost their tracks. We settled down and established the H.Q. in a cafe. The news came that our Squadron leader had been promoted to second in command of the regiment and that another Major was on his way to take charge of us. When he arrived in a couple of days he turned out to be rather a county type who had been in the War Office for some years. The first thing he asked was ‘Are there any letters to censor?’ Normally we took the letters to the troop officer who usually asked ‘Are these all right?’ and signed them without further ado. Major Deas made a meal of them and I often heard him laughing over the contents of the letters. He had a very fruity voice and it soon became plain that he knew nothing of running a squadron and still less of fighting. Yet he was a very likeable character.
We now moved to the outskirts of a village where we stayed for some weeks. I slept in a farmhouse – in the attic. The house, the cowshed and pigsty were all under one roof. The smell of ammonia at night was overpowering!! The family of nine were staunch Catholics who lived mainly on potatoes. Their wan faces were proof of that. We had a corporal who was a menace to everything in skirts between ten and seventy years old. One day the wife caught our corporal molesting one of their daughters who was about twelve. She gave him two or three hefty clouts. Everything OK? Not likely, she had transgressed by losing her temper and the whole family had to join in supplication for the errant woman, while she sat wailing in the corner. In my view the wife should have given the so and so another couple from the other side. On Christmas morning the whole family went to church before 5am. I asked if the church had been heated. “Nein” was the reply.- and I thought our family were religious!!.
One other thing happened that day. The Major came round to wish us well, and when he came to me said ‘Heah is my drivah – a good chap but I do wish he wouldn’t write Welsh letters, I cannot understand them’. The poor soul. One more thing about this place. I was on guard from 4 to 6 in the morning and as I went past a farm entrance I heard a noise like someone crying. I looked around but I couldn’t see anyone and carried on with my patrol. I wasn’t too happy about it so turned back and went into the extensive farm yard to find a woman splashing about in the well in the centre of the courtyard. I ran to the door and found the farmer talking to one of our sergeants. We got a blanket and eventually lifted what appeared to be an old lady who looked very ill. She was carried to the house. That morning at breakfast I mentioned this to our landlady to see if she knew what had happened. My description of an ‘old frau’ hardly fitted with the “plonk wasser” she mentioned. That evening she told me “Nein nein old frau” and that the woman concerned had had a child a fortnight earlier!
It was at this time and in the most unlikely place I suffered most from battle fatigue, I had gone on a short leave to Brussels and the place was buzzing with Americans. The news broke that the Germans had attacked the Americans on the Ardennes, and had broken through and were making for Brussels. The locals were in panic because the Germans had plastered ‘We shall be back’ on walls everywhere and this had worried them greatly. The Americans had vanished from the streets and we were quite glad to get back to the unit. This was when we saw refugees with their carts and bundles looking for sanctuary. When I got back to the tank I was glad to get inside the steel plating.
Towards the end of February came our next push. This was the one action that stood out in my memory and the main reason for that was our Major. He was a character compared to his predecessor who apart from commands like “Driver start up” “Driver right” and so on never spoke to his crew. Not so Major Deas. He had an interest in us all – too much if anything. He drank more whisky than he should, but he was a warm individual. who appealed to me.
In the exercises before the attack it was patently obvious that he hadn’t a clue about battle tactics. One thing that concerned his crew and troop was that he insisted on leading the squadron from the front, and instead of the troop leader being at the base of the ‘V’ the ‘V’ was inverted. On these exercises he got to the target ten minutes before anyone else “Like a fairy on a Christmas tree” as our Corporal remarked.
He fouled up when we got to the marshalling area where the movement of units was carefully laid down. We watched as hundreds of tanks and vehicles passed, then came a gap and the command came from the Major “Start up” and away we went, only to find out about a quarter of an hour later that we had moved too soon and had split another regiment in half, and we were split from the rest of the 44th. We shortly found a place to pull in, and things were straightened out but the stock of our Major was very low.
The battle came, which was fierce. We were in reserve and Captain Watkins was sent forward to take charge of another squadron. The Major had the idea that he would like to see the action at closer quarters and received permission to go forward. The place was in turmoil with shells, mortars and machine guns going off. Our Major was shouting “Hoo Hoo” at Captain Watkins who hastily waved his arm. From the middle of this maelstrom a young German soldier appeared leading an old man and woman to safety. Suddenly the old girl stopped and lifted her skirts and attended to the call of nature. The lad stood by quietly while it happened!!
It was time for us to take the stage again and moved behind Captain Watkins (who lost his life in this action) and away we went to take a crossroads. One troop to the left another to the right and us on the road. I tried to go as slowly as I could to enable the others to keep up, but the orders from the Major was ‘speed up’. The co-driver and I looked for troops on the wings but no sign! We soon arrived at the crossroads without a shell or mortar to hinder us and to our surprise the Major announced this over the radio to HQ. The Major left the tank to talk to the attendant infantry when the first burst of H.E. came over. The co-driver and I had opened the hatches to see if the infantry had arrived and I received a small nick on the back of my neck from the shrapnel. We closed down again smartly!. The corporal was very uneasy and told me to start up. I asked where the Major had got to, and he didn’t know. My co-driver and I looked at each other, we knew the corporal was sweating on his leave, which was due. Orders being orders so I started up. A few seconds later the order came to switch off because the Major was under the tank with half a platoon of infantry sheltering from the barrage. In a few minutes the Major returned and I heard the corporal asking “Sir may I talk to you, man to man? “Certainly corporal” came the reply. “You’ve got this tank in a bloody stupid position, Sir” After a pause the Major asked “Drivah, and what do you say?”
Now I am naturally loyal to those in charge and I knew that Frank Murain the corporal was almost hysterical at the thought of losing his leave. We had got where we were without incident so I replied ‘We (the co-driver and I) are quite comfortable thank you sir.’ ‘Thank you drivah” and then silence. Soon afterwards the major’s legs became very swollen and that was the end of his career as a soldier.
Many months later the Major was Town Major near Hamburg. One night I had gone to bed at a nearby castle when the R.S.M. himself came to wake me up and told me to dress and go to another castle about five miles away, which was the HQ. I was puzzled but obeyed. On the way I was told there was a sergeants’ mess party with Major Deas as a guest and he had expressed a wish to see his old driver. I received a huge welcome from him and his description of me made me blush! He put his hand on my shoulder and said I was to bring my wife and meet Mrs Deas for a ‘quiet little drink’. The old Sunday School Superintendent almost choked on the spot!!
Back to the war. We moved about fifty yards to the right of the main road as another regiment was taking over the attack. I saw them coming down the slope and within seconds three or four tanks had been destroyed. The rest went on out of my sight. The noise of firing was incredible and eventually they came back – what was left of them – in a rare panic, throwing smoke bombs behind them until it was impossible to see anything. The panic spread and I could see some of our tanks pulling back. The Major told us to move, but only a short distance. Then the voice of the second in command came on the radio icily demanding to know what was happening. That was enough for the Major to send out rockets while we slipped quietly back to our position. The regiment that took the beating was City of London Yeomanry, Gentlemen of London. They lost dead or wounded all their principle officers and many junior officers, a dark day for them. The Germans were overcome in a day or two.
We pulled out to central Belgium to practice with swimming tanks. To those of us ex 24th Lancers, these were not new. An apron of giant inner tubes were placed around the tank which were inflated from a compressed air tank a propeller was added and that basically was that. We went down to the river blew up the tubes, put the thing in gear drove in until the propeller took over. The driver and co-driver were about six feet under water and were guided by the tank commander who was above water level. Look for a reasonable landing spot, hope the river was not flowing too quickly a light throttle. The fact that only one tank failed to cross was proof the system worked. Of the fighting from here on, little stands out in my memory. The enemy consisted of 15 year old boys and Home Guard types to fill in. The main worry were the anti-aircraft gun turned anti-tank guns. We had to treat them very carefully. By attacking from three sides at once we could subdue them without paying too high a price. No one wanted to be the last to die if that could be avoided but accidents happened. A lad from Lancing, Sussex who had just married that Easter was killed when getting out of the tank. He got hold of the machine gun barrel to help lever himself out. He must have given a jerk because it fired and he was killed. He was the last casualty of the 44th although it was some days before the Germans laid down their arms. There was general jubilation with shots fired in the air, to the alarm of local residents who thought the Russians had arrived! The morning arrived and with it – a block of blanco!. The close relationships between officers and men was beginning to unravel and spit and polish was re-established as the order of the day, and in a flash we were back to the barrack square.
Non-fraternisation was the rule with the threat of the glass house for those caught. We had a new Major and one evening he and another new officer saw one of our lads walking arm in arm with one of the local girls. They shouted at him and they took off in opposite directions and the Major and Lieutenant started chasing the trooper. Suddenly the trooper fired his revolver at his pursuers, who abandoned the chase. In an hour or so the place was swarming with Red Caps. This led to nothing and the trooper from H.Q. troop was heard to lament that he hadn’t had a Sten gun to do a better job!!
What of the Germans? their reaction was mixed, thousands of refugees swarmed round the place only too ready to take their revenge on their old masters. Some had heard of the treatment meted out by the Russians and were thankful they were on our side of the fence. They were also very bitter. The 44th were one of the Desert Rats and carried the flash on our arm. In a few hours most shops in the town carried displays extolling the virtues of rat poison!
The main question at the time was what age and service group you were. I was group 20 and although six months elapsed before I finally got out, I was very lucky. We were in a castle (schloss) near Lubeck on the Baltic and our job was to supervise the demob of thousands of German Army personnel to make sure that no unauthorised people went through. Working with us were a number of German army people and they appeared to be a good bunch of lads.
Quite a number of Poles worked in the kitchens and one day the Sergeant Major came and said he was arranging a chess match between me and the Polish champion, because so far I was unbeaten in the squadron. Well you learn by losing and I said I’d be delighted to play him. The night before the contest the Pole went berserk chasing after the cook with a carving knife. He was taken to hospital and that was that.
I had a short leave in Amsterdam and we stayed in a school which advertised that they were ready to send a parcel of tulips to our home address for a fixed amount of guilders. I sent one to my mother and the other to our home address at Porthcawl but I didn’t see much of a display in either place! Amsterdam though was well worth seeing.
November came and Group 20. I bade farewell to the 44th and turned back to Wales. It took me four days to get to Oxford and then to Hereford where we were issued with our demob suits and arrived home the following day.
The fetters had been cast aside after four and a half years of a strange life, a mixture of joy and sorrow and indeed highly comical at times. I was honoured to have had the fellowship and friendship of many good men.
I slipped back into civvy life without any trouble and resumed my old job like a fish in water. I have somewhere two medals – there should have been three – and a piece of paper saying ‘Employed as a tank driver- reliable and safe, conscientious and hard working under any conditions.’
Back in 1976, we were quite a grown-up lot at 209 Daventry Road – five second year students, three boys and two girls studying at Warwick – more Terry and June than Rik Mayall’s The Young Ones. We had proper Sunday lunches with some Liebfraumilch. We generally did more working than drinking, but sometimes went to the pub across the road, and once we got over our shock at not having to queue at the bar for fifteen minutes like on campus, some of us developed a taste for M&B mild. Our default man-lunch was cheese and pickle sandwiches on white. There were two cars between five of us, which meant that we non-drivers could normally cadge a lift to or from campus for lectures or to work in the library, if we were flexible about when we travelled.
One of the girls bought the Daily Mail each day, and our lunchtime routine was to tackle the crossword on the back, next to Peanuts. It was a gentle introduction to cryptic crosswords, and applying our combined undergraduate brain power we could usually finish it. It was an agreeable enough activity.
But ultimately pointless, of course, and one day as I was struggling to solve an anagram, my mind went off on a tangent. Rather than simply juggling the letters on paper, was there a systematic way to solve anagrams? I soon realised that there was.
If you took every word in the dictionary and arranged its letters alphabetically, and then arranged the transpositions in alphabetical order, attached to their words, and grouped by word length, you would have a book which could unscramble any anagram of a word in that dictionary.
Perhaps most people would have left it there as an idle thought, or assumed that such a book already existed. But I like to try things. I checked the crosswords section in a few bookshops to see whether there was such a book, and found nothing. Perhaps I could be the one to write it? So I noted down the publishers represented there. There were several books available which styled themselves as crossword dictionaries, where words were grouped alphabetically by word length, so a solver could, say, find all the seven-letter words beginning with ‘p’ grouped together.
Pan Books published The Modern Crossword Dictionary which was our regular companion as we did battle with the Daily Mail crossword. Probably the best selling crossword aid at the time – which had the advantage of the best word list, and of Chambers Twentieth Century Dictionary being the standard reference for serious crossword solvers – was Chambers Words, published just two years earlier in 1976, with the extra attraction of an introduction by Frank Muir. There was also a rather creaky looking volume published by Barrie & Jenkins called The Crossword Companion sporting a jacket looking like it hadn’t been updated since the first edition in 1952.
If I thought that looked old fashioned, there was also a splendid volume called The Quickway Crossword Dictionary, published by Frederick Warne & Co, (best known for Beatrix Potter and the “Observer Book of..” series) and Compiled by Colonel H. W. Hill C.M.G., D.S.O. (if you please), and Revised by his son.
I reasoned that it made sense to concentrate on publishers who already had a crossword dictionary in print – firstly because they already sold books to crossword solvers, and secondly because that would provide me with a ready made word list: otherwise I would have to compile one from scratch – something I was keen to avoid.
So I approached Pan Books, Chambers, Barrie & Jenkins and Frederick Warne with my proposal, enclosing a few sample pages of the six-letter section to illustrate how it would work. I had no computer or typewriter, and my letters were untidily handwritten.
I knew it was a long shot, and was disappointed but not surprised before long to receive rejections from Pan, Frederick Warne and Chambers. The first two were routine rejection slips which showed no evidence the publishers had given the idea serious consideration, but I found the letter from Chambers especially irritating. It said that they had “of course” considered publishing an anagram dictionary, but had come to the conclusion that there was insufficient demand.
But after a few weeks, I was very excited to receive a letter from Nancy at Barrie & Jenkins saying that they might be interested. It seemed at first that she hadn’t fully understood the concept: she wrote that she had consulted a mathematician who had said there were billions of possible combinations for 6 up to 15 letters, and that any book attempting to include them all would be enormous. I had to reassure her that only those combinations corresponding with actual words would be included, so the book would be only twice the length of a list of all the words in the dictionary.
Being twenty-one, I was impatient for rapid progress. I had no idea how many meetings and approvals publishers needed about production, marketing, finance, everything, and every day the postman failed to bring a letter from Barrie & Jenkins provoked a stream of angry muttering. I used the time to work on my word list, and to work out the exact content of the book.
The word list was compiled by editing the list in The Crossword Companion and adding in more words from more comprehensive sources – the finished volume would contain some 50,000 words. The dictionary would include only words from six letters up to fifteen letters – I reasoned that solving anagrams with five or fewer letters was insulting the reader’s intelligence, while a standard crossword grid wouldn’t usually contain words longer than fifteen letters.
But how would I compile the book? It had been pretty laborious, just putting together a small sample to demonstrate the idea to publishers: writing each word on a piece of card, adding its alphabetical transposition, putting them all in order, then writing them all out again. By now I was in the final year of an Economics degree – I would need to do some actual study. This was also the time of punk rock, there were gigs to attend. Compiling this book manually would be a great deal of work, so I made tentative enquiries with the University of Warwick computer department.
They were very supportive of an undergraduate with a project: they confirmed that writing a program to sort the words would be a simple matter, and offered, at a very fair rate, the services of in-house punch card operators to input the words. These operators worked very fast, and would be able to complete the task in a fraction of the time it would have taken me.
Eventually the letter I had been waiting for came through: Barrie & Jenkins wanted to publish the book. I was thrilled. I asked the Warwick computer department to start work, and in April 1978 I received the contract, and visited Barrie & Jenkins office in Highbury to sign it and meet my editor Nancy. She was friendly and humorous, taken by surprise when a mere boy turned up, having assumed from my shaky handwriting and from the dull subject matter, that I must be at least seventy.
She explained that they had decided to publish my book because they saw it as a back-list book – i.e. one that would never trouble the bestseller lists, but would tick away over a number of years selling steadily. She asked about my career plans: accountancy seemed too dull a reply, so I muttered something about pop and rock music journalism. She contemplated my unworldly features and replied that it was a tough business.
The contract provided for an advance of £250 – a princely sum for a student in 1978 – with half to be paid on signature and half on delivery and approval of the manuscript. I blew most of this on a Honda Camino moped (which I could ride without passing a test provided I displayed an L-plate), and have only understood how much this terrified my mother since I had children of my own.
My last term at Warwick was hectic, juggling production of the book, my finals, preparing to begin my ‘proper’ career as an accountant at Deloitte Haskins + Sells, and in my spare time managing the Students’ Union secondhand bookshop. I don’t recall how long it took to produce the manuscript, but there was barely a month between receiving the advance for signature, and the advance for delivery.
The helpful fellows at the computer department, Rod, Mike and Gerry, pointed out that when their program had finished churning out the book, I would have what they called ‘machine readable text’ – i.e. computer tapes could be used to typeset the book directly, bypassing old fashioned mechanical typesetting. This would avoid the need to input the text again, so also make it less likely that mistakes could creep in during production.
This was a revelation. I pointed the opportunity out to Barrie & Jenkins: after what I imagine were frenzied enquiries around the antiquated British printing industry, they came back with a request for the data to be supplied on paper tape. Even in 1978, that was a near-redundant medium, magnetic tape being the standard: the response from Warwick was really? Yes, really.
Not only was I providing the material for the book: I was doing a chunk of the production work for them. Surely that must be worth something? I had no idea how much to invoice, so I plucked a figure out of the air, and asked the publishers for £400, and they paid it. I had paid Warwick just over £200 for their work, but as they had effectively written the book for me – apart from the idea and the word selection – the money I received from production felt like a windfall.
To put this sum into perspective, I started work that year as a trainee accountant at Deloittes on £3,000 per annum, so £400 exceeded one and a half month’s salary. Not amazing, but useful, and three years later it was a decent start towards the deposit on my first flat, in those happy days when a twenty-five year old with an unspectacular salary could get on the property ladder.
On 30 November, The Crossword Anagram Dictionary was published. (After the contract was signed, the publisher had decided to add ‘crossword’ to the title, to make sure it reached its intended audience, and was properly placed in bookshops.).
I received six complimentary copies in the post. It is a wonderful feeling, for a newly published author, to open the package and unwrap the pristine, professionally produced books, to finger the fresh smelling pages, and to to gaze at your own name on the cover. I styled myself R J Edwards rather than Rik because it seemed a little drier, a little more crosswordy. Rik would have to wait until the novel.
On the morning of 13 December 1978 the phone rang at my flat in Kilburn before I had set off to work. It was Dad, telling me to buy a copy of The Guardian – he had opened his copy that morning to read a review of the book, as an editorial piece. It was a scathing review, which likened me to the Rev Casaubon in Middlemarch, but Nancy was delighted with the publicity. “You don’t read reviews”, she said, “you measure them”. On that logic, to make the editorial of a national newspaper was a pretty good result. And I could disregard the irony, and selectively quote “this scholarly monument” (The Guardian) as a review.
I made numerous vanity trips to bookshops to check whether I could spot it in stock: usually I couldn’t. I didn’t ask the staff why not, though I was tempted. But sales were ticking over quietly, and I wasn’t too disappointed by my first royalty statement, in which sales comfortably exceeded my advance. It was surprisingly boosted by a bulk sale to Mayflower Books in New York. I never found out how many Mayflower shifted, although I was sceptical – cryptic crosswords have never been popular in the US, and surely that was the main application for the book? Never mind, it wasn’t my problem – all grist to the mill.
I wasn’t so happy, though, when a couple of years later Chambers – who had “of course” considered publishing an anagram dictionary, but had come to the conclusion that there was insufficient demand – decided to publish Chambers Anagrams, organised exactly the same my book. This was doubly annoying: firstly they certainly pinched my idea – it seemed highly unlikely that they came up with the system for the dictionary independently – and secondly, because they were using words from the Chambers dictionary, their book would be sure have to have a stronger appeal to crossword solvers.
I had no recourse: apparently a text could be copyrighted, but not an idea. So instead I bear a grudge. This all happened forty years ago, but I’m patient. When I get my chance, Chambers are going down.
Anyway…my dream was to get enough books in publication steadily producing royalties so that I no longer needed to do a proper job – and I had an idea for another book. As The Guardian had helpfully pointed out, many crossword solutions are phrases, not words. Only one crossword aid so far had included phrases, Pan Books’ Modern Crossword Dictionary, and they were listed together with all words of the same length.
My idea was to compile a specialist dictionary consisting only of phrases, listed not only by length, but also by configuration. So if, to borrow The Guardian’s example, the elusive solution was “waste of time”, you need only look through the 5,2,4 part of the 11-letter section. And if the book was printed with equal spacing, so that the letters aligned vertically, and you knew, say, that the eighth letter was ‘t’, then you just skim down the eighth column looking for possible solutions.
I pitched the idea to my publishers – Nancy had moved on, and by now Barrie & Jenkins had become Stanley Paul, a Hutchinson imprint – but presumably encouraged by sales of the first book, they went for it. The contract was signed in January 1980, with publication scheduled for later that year. But the recession intervened: I was told that many planned books were dropped, but the Crossword Phrase Dictionary survived the cull to be published the following year.
I had a third and final book idea, and the ideas were becoming steadily less imaginative – or, as Nancy put it, more arcane. Crossword Dictionaries, I argued, were always arranged alphabetically from the start of the word – whereas the nature of crosswords was that you were just as likely to know the last letters of the word as the first. So why not arrange them from the back of the word?
This project started life as the Crossword Backwards Dictionary but was published in 1983 as the Crossword Completion Dictionary. Production didn’t go smoothly: the first proofs I received were in a normal typeface where, for example, a ‘W’ was given more space than an ‘I’. I had to point out that this wouldn’t work: the letters had to be given equal spacing so that the columns would align, so that the user could look down a straight line to find the letter they needed.
This was too technical for Stanley Paul’s typesetters, so I offered to supply camera ready pages – printed in typewriter capitals, albeit by computer – another useful production payday. This gave the pages a slightly home-made look, but at least it did the job.
The horse I was flogging, if not yet dead, was certainly starting to look tired. But all three books continued to produce worthwhile royalties. And in 1983 I had another idea: The Scrabble® Bonus Book, which would enable the user to, um, cheat at Scrabble by showing all the words that could be made with seven or eight letters, which might be used to score a 50-point bonus for playing all one’s tiles in a single turn.
Stanley Paul decided that they’d had enough of a good thing by now, and turned the idea down. So I tried a few other publishers, and Longman, heavyweight publishers of academic books, expressed interest. In the end, they didn’t go ahead because the necessary approval from J.W. Spear & Sons, who licensed Scrabble in the UK, was not forthcoming.
But Longman had their eyes on the dictionary market, and were interested in publishing a companion to their successfulCrossword Key. Their idea was to publish a much larger Anagram Dictionary, using their own word list, with a selection of phrases thrown in. Stanley Paul were kind enough not to raise any objection, and the new book was published in 1985 – an impressive volume it was too.
A paperback edition followed three years later. Later an imprint called Tiger Books reprinted the Crossword Anagram Dictionary. But I had run out of ideas. The income from my four books had certainly been useful, especially during the challenging first years of my mortgage, but it had never approached the level I had hoped for, which would enable me to avoid nine to five working and coast along on my royalties. There went my dream of avoiding work.
Happily my day job was now at a level of enjoyment where that didn’t matter – and just as well. In 1995, I received my last meaningful royalty cheques. Soon after, the nascent internet was swarming with anagram solvers, crossword solvers, you name it, and the books soon went out of print: nobody needed a book for this stuff any more.
Fast forward a few years, and like J.R. Hartley, I was curious to know whether my first book was still available. By the 21st century Yellow Pages were as redundant as my own books, so I searched on Amazon Marketplace. I was pleased to find that The Crossword Anagram Dictionary was indeed available: less pleased to learn that my masterpiece was offered at 1p (+ £2.80 postage & packing). My colleague Chris knew a bargain when he saw it, and swooped in to buy it. (Later I got to set up my own Author Page on Amazon.)
And when it arrived I felt a little better about the low price: the volume was very well-thumbed – it had clearly been much used…maybe even loved?What do you think of that, The Guardian?
In our family life, 1996 was a good year. Alice was born, and our first daughter, Rachel, was two, and growing up fast. We were adjusting to life in our house in Chorleywood, having moved from north London the previous autumn.
But at work, things weren’t going so well. Merrill Lynch, the “thundering herd”, had turned its mighty power on to my cosy little domain: UK preference shares. This had been a sleepy place with modest turnover and comfortable trading margins: enough to make a decent living for the handful of people who specialised in this niche area. It had run on knowledge and contacts, and capital had played a relatively small part.
However, Merrill Lynch had world domination in mind, and surprisingly the UK preference market was part of their plans. They may have been encouraged in this by the experienced group of fixed income salesman and traders they had recently recruited. Experienced and also wealthy: most, had already made serious money from selling their share of their previous employers – London broking and jobbing firms – to large banks desperate for a slice of the City, when it was opened up by the Big Bang in 1986. Also, of course, they had benefited from decades of generally lucrative employment.
Merrill may not have given much thought to the risk appetite of prosperous employees in their fifties, especially recent recruits with no particular company loyalty. Perhaps they should have done. Their team would have been on contracts that required a large lump sum payment in the event of redundancy. So they couldn’t lose: if they took a large gamble with Merrill’s money and won, they would get fat bonuses: if they lost, they would lose their job, bank a healthy payoff and stroll off into a comfortable retirement.
So their game was on. In the small number of preference shares with relatively large issue sizes, Merrill started to make hyper-competitive prices. For example, in Bank of Scotland 9 1/4% pref, where we would perhaps have guaranteed a client or broker a price in 100,000 or 250,000 in order to work a total order of half a million or more on a three point dealing spread, they might make a half point price in a million, sometimes as many as five million. So if, say, they made clients and brokers a price of 131.5 – 132 in one million, they were offering to buy up to a million shares at 131.5p, or sell up to a million at 132p. To put this in perspective, the whole share issue was only 200m – to make such a close price in such a large size was a huge commitment.
Our modus operandi of making a margin by negotiated trade was completely redundant, now that clients could instantly get their business done elsewhere in size and at close prices. As a relatively small firm, we didn’t have the capital to compete with Merrill’s pricing: nor did we think it sensible to try. We knew that providing this spectacular level of liquidity in such a small market was unsustainable in the long run. Although typically the City judges people in the short run.
On one occasion, after the new Chancellor Gordon Brown announced a tax change which was unambiguously bad for preference shares, Merrill continued to march their prices upwards. As they did so, naturally they acquired a further large amount of stock as investors deemed the shares unattractive to hold at the higher levels.
Within a few months, we had withdrawn from price making in the issues which Merrill dominated, although a couple of our competitors soldiered on. Business was very thin for a while: we were reduced to scratching around in the most arcane corners of our market to try to make a turn. There were days when we failed to book a single ticket or register any movement at all on our profit and loss account. Difficult times.
My personal life, although on its planned trajectory, didn’t help. The combination of lost sleep and the stress of being the unconfident father of a toddler and a baby meant I lacked the energy to reinvent my business to meet the competitive challenge. Also my daily commute had increased from half an hour when we lived in London to an hour and a quarter, which made it a long day.
In late 1998 some relief for us came from a newly fashionable capital instrument: “B” shares. These were devised as a means for companies to return capital to shareholders. Typically a return of capital was more tax efficient for shareholders than dividends, and “B” shares were devised as a way for shareholders to choose the timing of this receipt – by reference to prearranged repayment dates – to mitigate their tax liability.
Most shareholders accepted their payment at the first opportunity, while some will have scheduled to accept it in a subsequent tax year. But a substantial minority didn’t want to get involved with the administration of a corporate action: the small size of many individual holdings made it more efficient to sell the shares in the market than pay the corporate action fee to accept the full payment. And some larger holders simply sold rather than bothering to look at the detail, assuming that the market bid would be close to fair value.
This assumption was false. We had become aware of “B” shares following one or two dealing enquiries, so we investigated. What we found interested us deeply. Firstly, although there was a growing number of this new type of shares, no single market maker covered them as a group: they were typically taken up, probably reluctantly, by market makers in the associated equity, as an add-on service for their customers. Secondly, the market was very uncompetitive. For example, WH Smith, an unexciting but perfectly sound company, had “B” shares in issue where the highest screen bid was 25p, but with a redemption offer by the company within a few months at 50p, offering a spectacular return for the buyer, and penalising anyone careless enough to passively accept the market bid.
We immediately registered as dealers in all the “B” shares we could identify. By covering the whole market and making sure our bid prices were (just) the best, we became the natural call for brokers with shares to sell. Once we acquired the shares, we could either book a healthy profit over a few months by holding them until redemption, or take an immediate turn by offering them to a client as a quasi-deposit investment, giving an attractive yield to redemption. This wheeze helped plug the gap in our profit and loss account for a couple of years.
By late 1999 Merrill Lynch’s chickens were coming home to roost. Their team’s strategy had been to make very large and close prices, while moving those prices steadily up – not difficult in a relatively small market, if you’re prepared to spend enough money buying stock. The combination of large holdings and rising prices appeared highly profitable, but this was unrealised profit, based on prices which they were controlling. A profit is only certain when the position is closed out. I couldn’t say whether Merrill paid their team bonuses based on these paper profits – it’s hard to believe they would have been so naive, but who knows, large banks have made some very strange decisions over the years.
At any event, things must have come to a head. One day we came in to the news that Merrill had parted company with their fixed income team. They immediately stopped making prices in extravagant size – at least at the bid end – although their prices remained stubbornly high for a while, before easing slowly closer towards historically more typical levels.
I sensed they might have some unwinding to do, and over the next few months I got to know the softly spoken Scottish fellow who had been left in charge of Merrill’s preference positions. As I had hoped, one day he called us with some business: could we get a bid for 11.25 million NatWest 9%? In the sleepy backwater where I operated, I dreamt of getting an order like this. I made some calls and was able to find a buyer – albeit at a level below the prices displayed on screen – and Merrill accepted our bid. I had work to do: in the next few weeks I placed out tens of millions more of their shares with institutional investors.
Eventually the flow of this business dried up, as Merrill flattened their holdings, or at least reduced them to more comfortable levels. The screen prices were still unrealistically high, and we kept hearing reports of brokers and clients who were unable to execute their sell orders. This was an opportunity: anyone willing to make the right prices could potentially capture all the business. There were other market makers beside Merrill, but they were also compromised, presumably so long of stock that they would face heavy losses if they moved prices down to the true levels. Of course that was their problem, not ours.
We registered to once again make prices in the leading stocks. After some discussion, we opted for a wide ten point spread, bidding about fifteen points less than Merrill’s screen bid, offering at five points less, making prices in a princely 25,000. It was unusual (and bold) to publicly offer stock below their displayed bid price (called a backwardation) – we were effectively saying their prices were wrong.
The first day trading these stocks again was a nervous one. Our low prices looked out of line and initially attracted buyers: brokers came on to buy small amounts, checking that we were happy with the price – that is, we were happy to sell on a backwardation. “No problem” I replied, “We mean it, they don’t.” Easy to say, of course, but as the day went on our short positions steadily mounted at prices which, I was starting to worry, might be cheap. What if I had been wrong?
In the final hour of trading, relief arrived. A broker rang up with a few decent sell orders, seventy thousand of these, fifty thousand of those. “Are you happy with your bid prices?” he asked. “I’ve been trying to sell these for weeks, but no-one’s given me a bid for them.” I took all his stock and heaved a sigh of relief: we had filled our short positions, our prices had been validated, and we could carry on trading our levels with confidence.
Over the next weeks, our opposition implicitly acknowledged that we were right by slowly adjusting their prices down to our levels – one imagines this was not cheap – and some abandoned the preference market completely. It was a long time before we had any serious competition to worry about. Merrill, in particular would have suffered losses in clearing their positions which would horrify most firms, but which probably registered as a mere blip in their New York City headquarters.
These events came with some cost to my career: during Merrill’s aggressive and ultimately disastrous presence in the market, my department’s profits had plummeted, and my (whole company based) profit share arrangement had been marked sharply down – substantially reverting to a share of our own book. This was uncomfortable at the time, although I had to remind myself that most people outside the City working in “real world” jobs – teachers, shopworkers, nurses – would still think my new lower pay rate very generous. And perhaps it was beneficial in the longer term: it left me with something still to prove. My appetite for business – and my enjoyment of it – stayed keen for many more years. The best years of my career were still ahead of me.
Over twenty years have passed since I had this unwanted close-up of a major investment bank in operation. And in case you’re wondering whether Merrill Lynch continued to make costly mistakes…oh yes. During the 2008 financial crisis they suffered huge losses from the drop in value of their mortgage portfolio of collateralized debt obligations, and they were forced to accept a takeover by Bank of America. I wasn’t too sad about that.
yes abbey road not played it for ages, still got vinyl in the loft bought a record player ten years back won’t work CD player jumps thank god for streams I guess Maxwell what a horrible little song is this album so good? all so smooth George good rest though? fucking octopus at last best one I want you she’s so heavy turn it up that riff churns we used to watch grooves run out end of side one to know when it ends on and on it goes is this when it ends? not yet start to sweat is it this bit no no groove to watch need to sit down oh am sat down on it goes feel better turn it up a bit more here? no need glass of water right yes oh floor yes this is how it ends here comes the sun.
A few years ago, I liked my teas and coffees in a posh china cup and saucer. It felt proper. But the drink was too small, the larger surface area made it cool too quickly – and what is a saucer, but an extra piece of washing up? So, over the years, we have accumulated a fair collection of mugs. Each has a particular niche.
So if you are invited to stay at our house for a few days – and don’t worry, the risk is low, we’re not very sociable – there are a few house rules you should be aware of. Some of our guests are super helpful, and we appreciate it, we really do. Some help Debbie with the catering, others help me with the washing up. Some do both.
I’m especially grateful for assistance in providing the coffees and teas that can seem like a continuous process. So I hope family and friends will take these comments in the constructive spirit in which they’re offered. I’m just trying to spare embarrassment all round. In this spirit I offer the following guide.
David Hockney Royal Academy – primary coffee mug for Debbie
Kings and Queens – first string coffee mug for Rik
Winnie-the-Pooh – cheap mug. Alice nicked it from Greenbelt Festival. Possible future toothbrush mug
Florence + The Machine – Alice’s, of course. Matt finish. Never used, probably too precious
Japanese Spitz – Alice’s coffee mug. Gold-rimmed. Do not use dishwasher
Royal Opera House Musicians – in theory for anyone, in practice for Rik’s coffee. Faded, the poor fellow has quite lost his tuba
Periodic Table – large mug. You may use this. Ideal for tea if you’re really thirsty. Lettering faded. Incomplete, they keep inventing new elements
Pack Leader Cesar Millan – Debbie bought it but Alice uses it. Tea
British Prime Ministers – notionally Rachel’s but you may use. Good for a very large tea
Ricky Road Run 2009 (red) – chunky, suitable for outdoor use…gardeners, workmen if they should be so lucky
Ricky Road Run 2010 (red) – chunky, suitable for outdoor use…gardeners, workmen if they should be so lucky
Ricky Road Run 2017 (white) – same as the two above, of course, why should it be any different? Do you think we’re crazy?
White Hellebore – big and chunky. You may use this mug. Works for a large tea, if you’re not dainty. Also a good shape for storing half-tins of plum tomatoes or baked beans in the fridge
Holly – ditto but vaguely festive
Art History – notionally Alice’s but you may use. Good for a very large tea
Ladybirds – curved shape, slightly larger. Debbie’s mug, a present from Rachel. Debbie only, tea or coffee
Doctor Who Experience – Alice’s mug of choice for tea. Don’t you dare!
Tea Society – Alice’s, from her friend Fran. Alice’s tea only
Seagull – Debbie’s first choice for tea
Half Cup – novelty present from Rik to Debbie for that “half cup” of coffee she wants at breakfast time. Semicircular shape of top makes drinking awkward – safest to drink from the narrow angle. Probably on its way to the charity shop before long
I Like Dogs More Than People – Alice’s. Obviously. Don’t touch, grrr!
“Rik” – pottery mug acquired in the Lake District c.1989, customised with Rik’s name. Quite small, rather scratchy, Rik very rarely uses it. And you shouldn’t, either
Shakespeare’s Plays – a Christmas present for Rachel, from which she can drink her hot chocolate. You may, however, use this if she’s not here
Green Tortoise – given to Alice by a bandmate, shortly before they kicked him out. Do what you like.
Edward Lear Stripy Bird – top tier coffee mug for Debbie
Eden Project Coffee – Debbie bought it, Rik annexed it. Coffee only. Of course.
Windsor Castle – very faded, many dishwash. Debbie bought it, Rik annexed it. Bit of a pattern emerging…
National Trust Puffin – chunky small mug. Hangs well on hook. This is what Debbie means when she asks for a small coffee
Puffins (by Alison Vickery) – Debbie’s coffee mugs first team
Van Gogh Museum Wheatfield With Crows – too narrow, now serving as a toothbrush mug after previous officeholder died in action. Looking nervous.
Van Gogh Museum Starry Night – too narrow, not used much. Sister mug (above) serving as toothbrush mug. Also looking nervous.
Daddilybee Lord of the Fields – Debbie ordered it from her own design and gave it to Rik. Quite narrow, much loved but rarely used
Three Peaks of Yorkshire Club – Rik’s, for climbing Pen-y-ghent, Whernside and Ingleborough within twelve hours. Except he didn’t, he took longer over it, but they still let him buy the mug. Gold-rimmed, slightly too large, rarely used and you shouldn’t either
York – Rik’s really, but you may. Hangs on the hook, for some reason
Women Who Changed the World – a Christmas present for Rachel, from which she can drink her hot chocolate. Just like Shakespeare’s plays. You should listen.
Isaac Newton – Debbie’s coffee mugs first team. Do not put this in the dishwasher, you will not be forgiven
Catch of the Day – Debbie bought this in Norfolk, but found it fractionally too large. So Rik nicked it, and it’s now his default tea mug, unless he’s really thirsty
Edward Lear Runcible Bird – first choice mug for Rik’s coffee
I realise that’s quite a lot for you to remember, so I’ll have this list laminated and bound into a handy brochure, to keep by the kettle. I know you’ll appreciate it. It’s the least I can do to make our guests feel at ease.
You lucky, lucky bastard. I used to set my alarm for quarter to six when I commuted to London. I’ve always imagined Matthew and Son as a mucky old factory, probably in the north of England, one that L S Lowry might have painted. Cat took the name from his tailor, Henry Matthews, but the lyric goes on to mention “the files in your head”. Perhaps it’s an office where accountants or lawyers toil. Or maybe a hand tool factory.
In fairness, Steven Demetre Georgiou, known to the world as Cat Stevens – later as Yusuf Islam – was only 18 in 1967 when this song was a big hit in the UK. Perhaps he didn’t experience work drudgery himself before he became a pop star. Although his girlfriend did, according to his later comment:
“I had a girlfriend, and she was working for this big firm, and I didn’t like the way that she had to spend so much of her time working… There was a bit of social comment there about people being slaves to other people.” So this shot across the bows of capitalism was inspired primarily by resentment of his girlfriend’s employer – and only incidentally by a sense of injustice. It is not recorded whether this is the same girlfriend whom he loved no more than his dog.
For Matthew and Son,
Matthew hasn’t called his company Aviva plc or G4S: no, he’s happy to put his name above the door, and be judged on his record by customers and employees. And employees’ boyfriends, it seems. Matthew has put his personal reputation (and his son’s) on the line. Clearly a man of integrity. (Or possibly a narcissistic t*** like Trump.)
he won't wait. Watch them run down to platform one And the eight-thirty train to Matthew and Son.
Well, I used to run down to platform one for the six-forty three train, that’s one hour and forty-seven minutes earlier, matey. And I don’t know how far you live from the station, but I do wonder whether thirty minutes is enough time for you to wake up/go to the loo/shave if applicable/shower/get dressed/have a nutritious breakfast/brush your teeth/make up if applicable/gather your stuff/get to platform one. All the things you should do to arrive at Matthew & Son presentable and ready for work.
Matthew and Son, the work’s never done,
That’s what work is, right? If all the work was done, you wouldn’t have a job any more, would you?
there’s always something new.
Stimulating work then.
The files in your head, you take them to bed, you’re never ever through.
Right, let’s assume it’s not a hand tool factory.
And they’ve been working all day
No employer would expect less.
There's a five minute break and that's all you take, For a cup of cold coffee and a piece of cake.
Cake? You get cake? Do Amazon delivery drivers get free cake? Luxury!
He’s got people who’ve been working for fifty years
A steady employer. A job for life. Probably a decent pension scheme. How many young people entering the job market in 2021 can expect that sort of loyalty from their employers? Uber pension, anyone?
No one asks for more money ‘cause nobody dares
There’s a whole world out there, guys. Go work on someone else’s files. Retrain. Emigrate.
Even though they’re pretty low and their rent’s in arrears
This doesn’t necessarily mean that Matthew and Son don’t pay a decent salary. Perhaps their employees are profligate.
Matthew and Son, Matthew and Son...etc
Cat was a precocious talent, and this song still sounds fresh. But he couldn’t have imagined how, half a century later, the march of Thatcherism and Reaganomics – followed by the rise of the gig economy – would make the workers at Matthew and Son look like the lucky ones. If they were recruiting today, applicants would be queueing around the block. Or rather, they’d crash the servers.
Matthew, and his Son – or by now his Great Grandchildren – are just trying to run a business. Give them a break. But make it a twenty minute break. And make sure the coffee’s hot.
No doubt I should have been learning more (or at least something) about the Phoenix Park murders, or rereading the turgid pages of Le Baiser au lépreux: I felt a continuous dull guilt that I was neglecting my studies. I wasn’t using my teenage years to take my first fumbling steps towards love, or taking advantage of the days when a small seventeen year-old could buy a pint of bitter unchallenged, as long as he had the money: no, instead I spent many hours buying and selling coins to improve my collection usingads in Exchange and Mart. I must have been fascinating company.
Only later did I understand that indulging my passion for trading had given me good practice for my City career. Luckily I didn’t completely ignore my studies, as I might not have been offered my entry level job at a stockbroking firm without a degree of some sort.
Sometimes your teenage interests suggest – if not always clearly – your direction in adult life. Ten years ago I met up with old school friends Charles and Richard. I remembered Charles at school had enjoyed tinkering with machines: he had become a railway engineer, specialising, when called upon, in crash forensics. Richard, I recalled, used to relish an argument on a point of detail – he had become a lawyer. I was now a City trader. We raised a glass to square pegs in square holes. Sometimes the pieces fit.
But life at school isn’t always a reliable predictor of adult life. I don’t imagine Jem, for example, would have forecast that I would grow into someone who runs marathons for the fun of it.
His name was Jeremy, but we all called him Jem. Perhaps we should have spelled that Gem: he was small and bright – younger than the official age group for our year, but sent ahead because he was clever – also friendly and funny. We were in different forms, but I met him on my first day at Watford Grammar when we found ourselves washing our hands next to each other in the luxurious toilet annexe. Two older boys were using the facilities, and one called out “Hey you two, come over here!” (Relax, this does not go badly.)
We went over there, and were asked to stand with our backs to the wall. “Blimey! You fellows are small!”. One produced a piece of chalk and marked our heights on the wall. He stood back and pronounced Jem narrowly the “winner” – i.e. the shortest boy in the school, he reckoned – and shook our hands. We looked at each other and shrugged, relieved that all the stories we had heard at primary school of blood curdling initiation rites had boiled down to this mild and good-natured ceremony.
I can’t speak for Jem, but I saw my small stature as a badge of honour: I was confident of my academic ability, and gained my self worth from that. In the following years Jem and I would often contend to be top of the year in the fortnightly maths tests – until, that is, my understanding of the subject hit a calculus brick wall.
About five years after our first encounter, we were shivering in Cassiobury Park on a Wednesday afternoon waiting to begin a cross country run. These runs were almost universally unpopular. They took place in the winter when the pitches were too waterlogged for rugby or hockey: as a result it was usually cold, wet, and very muddy. There was the fearsome Jacotts Hill, which seemed to appear in every route, and the ritual instruction to keep to the path as you crossed the golf course – suggesting that, were you slain by a ball, the knowledge that you had been righteous might comfort you as you drew your last breath.
I was competitive. Most boys didn’t try, or didn’t admit to trying – it wasn’t cool, and those who enjoyed sport preferred chasing a ball around. Many slowed to a walk as soon as they were out of sight of the teacher. But I did my honest best, and struggled: typically placing about 80th out of 120 boys, when few ahead of me cared, and probably none behind me. I plainly had no talent for this.
So I no longer put much effort into these runs, and on this day Jem – no great enthusiast either – and I decided to jog round together. It started well enough: we set off about three quarters down the field, and settled into a relaxed jog/walk which left enough breath for conversation. But after a mile or so we noticed that we had lost sight of the Athlete ahead of us, and when we came to the next junction we realised that neither of us had been paying attention when the sports master had been outlining the route.
How lost can you get in a town park? Well there’s nearly 200 acres of Cassiobury Park, and over the next forty minutes we did our best. I might have felt a little annoyance: after all, Jem lived on the Cassiobury estate, dammit. Well I guess he didn’t spend his weekends exploring the park. Our navigation skills were roughly equal. By the time we found the finish line, the master (it might have been “Beery”?) had given up and gone home, assuming he had miscounted, or perhaps he was indifferent to the fate of the boys in his charge.
So had I asked Jem, as we trudged shivering back to the changing rooms, do you think that in late middle age I’ll run through the very same muddy park regularly, often on cold rainy days, half way through a 21-mile training run, because I want to? Will I run fifteen marathons on thirteen different courses? Then he would have looked at me pityingly, assuming that the trauma of our wanderings in the park had scrambled my brain.
So what changed? In my mid thirties I took stock of my health and realised that I wasn’t getting much exercise: I tried running and became addicted. I found it therapeutic to apply myself to something so simple yet so difficult: as I ran, knots would untangle in my head. And there was the question of control: now running was a choice, I could enjoy it. I wonder if Jem ever caught the running bug?
I’m pretty sure that I haven’t acquired any new talent for running over the past half century. At least I no longer have to worry about navigation when I’m in a big city marathon: there are always plenty of people to follow. But it’s a sport where tenacity and sheer bloody-mindedness count for a lot, and if those are talents, I claim them.
Our kitchen tap drips. We first noticed this some time around 23rd March 2020 – the day when Boris Johnson went on TV, straining to project gravitas as he announced the first national lockdown – so as I write, that’s exactly a year ago.
Now, if our boiler packed in during February, we’d get it sorted, pronto, pandemic or not. Skybox? We’d roll the dice and have a man in to fix it within hours. WiFi? Totally take our chances on a potential lethally infectious engineer, to avoid being reduced to Conversation, reading “books” and playing Scrabble®️.
But a dripping tap, that’s trivial, surely? “Ah, Rik, caught Covid from the plumber and died. All because he got annoyed by a dripping tap and didn’t know how to fix it.” Not a speech anyone wants to hear at their funeral. Oh, right, well you know what I mean.
Also, we had a workaround. I discovered that if I moved the tap over the curve of the sink the dripping became inaudible, at least to my ageing ears. So I could live with it, sort of, if I remembered to move the tap back to the edge of the sink after every use.
I’ve just spent a happy minute counting 84 drips. It’s accelerated sharply over the year: I estimate that the average “drip rate” over the period was 53.47 drips per minute, seven days a week, day and night. No wonder Betty refuses to sleep in the kitchen. (For clarity, Betty is our dog. Not the housemaid.)
So, 53.47 drips x 60 minutes x 24 hours x 365 days = 28,103,832 drips since 23 March 2020. That could drive a man mad. At least I’ve kept my sanity, right?
Just how much water has this wasted? And how much has it cost me? In ten minutes, I collected 195 millilitres. So, 0.195 litres x 6 (per hour) x 24 hours x 365 days x 53.47/84 (to adjust for the average drip rate) = 6,524.1 litres since Boris spoke on the telly. For older readers, that’s 11,480.81 pints.
My water is charged at £0.9848 per cubic metre, or £0.0009848 per litre, so this dripping tap has cost me £0.0009848 x 6,524.1 = £6.42. Ok it won’t break the bank. But, I’m afraid, shockingly wasteful: my water usage over the last 12-month billing period was 210 cubic metres. So the dripping tap was 3.1% of my total consumption – and that includes brushing my teeth, teas and coffees, my monthly shower, everything.
Should I have tried to fix it? How hard can it be? No doubt very simple if you know what you’re doing. But I don’t, you see. Before I got as far as researching the task online, an image settled in my brain: the image of a plumber in waders shaking his head, and saying “Oh dear, what have you done here?” – a nightmarish echo of Mr Vale, the man who tried to teach me woodwork, gathering the class around: “Come and see what Edwards has done.” No, best not to try. I’ll pay the £6.42, thanks.
At the births of our daughters I realised that things can be commonplace and epic at the same time. And sometimes ordinary people feel they are – involuntarily – living a tiny piece of history. I remember on the afternoon of the 7/7 attacks in London in 2005, we were told that we could close our business early and go home, as there was no public transport in central London.
I declined the offer: I was unwilling to concede anything to the terrorists. My tiny act of defiance was to keep working as normal. To get my train home I had to walk from the City to Marylebone Station – about three and a half miles – it seems a long way through London, but we’d think little of it in the countryside. As I battled along the crowded pavements with my fellow commuters, there was – despite the horrific events of the day – an undoubted buzz. Something different, something important had happened, and we were all part of it.
In the same way, Coronavirus has thrust us all into history. When Boris Johnson spoke on 23rd March last year to announce the first lockdown, struggling to project gravitas in place of his customary jocularity, our daughter Alice remarked that she felt this was something she would remember for the rest of our life.
And so it felt. It didn’t rank with Chamberlain’s sombre, regretful speech announcing war with Germany, or with Churchill’s “fight them on the beaches”. But, for most of my generally fortunate boomer generation, the Coronavirus pandemic is without doubt the global event that has most impacted us during our lifetimes.
Eleven months after the first UK lockdown was announced, over 120,000 people have died in this country, and over 2,500,000 globally – although these figures probably understate the toll. Many died without being able to see their loved ones. Many more have been seriously ill, some of whom will suffer long term health issues as a result.
Children have suffered huge disruption to their education and social development. Parents have struggled to juggle childcare, home schooling and working from home. Many have lost their jobs, especially in the hospitality and retail industries, and suffered financial hardship. Young professionals have had to pause their social lives. Health and frontline workers have worked tirelessly, at great personal risk, frequently under great stress. Old people have suffered loneliness, isolated from sons, daughters and grandchildren. Every life has been changed.
As a relatively young retired couple, we have thankfully (so far) been at the shallow end of the problem pool. Like everyone else we’ve had to cancel or postpone plans for outings and holidays, but had no very aged relatives to worry about, and no impact on our finances. But it’s been stressful at times, and frustrating to watch a year of our active retirement slipping by with our activities so constrained.
So when on the same day Alice (currently living at home) and I both became eligible to receive our vaccinations, we were quite excited. She qualified for an early vaccination because she suffers from Type 1 Diabetes, while I learned from a Facebook post that 64-year olds could now get a jab, when I had thought you still needed to be 65 to qualify. We were able to book appointments at Watford Town Hall within ten minutes of each other for the next day, and follow-up appointments nearly three months later.
We arrived at the temporary structure on the site, and were shown where to go by cheerful volunteers. “Follow that lady” I was told. “That’s my daughter” I said. “Follow that lovely lady” she corrected. The atmosphere was positive and cheerful, almost celebratory: the punters arriving for their vaccinations were very glad to be there, and the medical staff and volunteers – working non-stop – no doubt felt truly appreciated. After a short wait I was answering questions about my health and being told about the vaccine. At one point I had difficulty hearing what the nurse was saying, because at the next table Alice was making them laugh so much telling the story of her guava allergy.
Soon we were Oxford/AstraZeneca jabbed. We were asked to wait for a few minutes before leaving in case we developed an allergic reaction, or in case the injection caused a problem in my arm which might impede driving. Soon we were home, jab done.
Apparently the Covid vaccines are more than usually “reactogenic“. That is a posh medical word meaning it’s more likely to make you feel like crap. And indeed, we both felt achy and shivery for a while, but deemed it a small price to pay for protection against a lethal illness. Perversely, I felt some reassurance from the side effects: the injection must have had some effect.
There are many things wrong with Britain. But there was a moment in the vaccination centre when I took in the pop-up building, the bustling efficient staff, the smiling volunteers – an enormous logistical challenge, met so quickly and under such pressure. We grateful customers taking, we hoped, a vital step back to freedom. And I thought this is the country I want to live in.
This could, of course, turn out to be a false dawn. Perhaps the vaccination will prove ineffective against new Covid strains, and we’ll have to stay under lockdown, or return to it. There may be more bumps on the road to recovery. But as we stepped outside and felt a little warmth in the late February sun, it certainly started to feel like spring.
Why do I sometimes remember things that no-one else does? Do I make these memories up?
When, in January last year, I wrote Teacher’s Pet about my time at Watford Field Junior School, and put the article on a local Facebook group, a former fellow pupil called Andy Skinner commented on the article, and we began a dialogue.
Something then stirred in my memory: something to do with Skinner, a party, my brother Rob, and a Motown single. Eventually it took shape. In about 1970, we – well, Rob – had owned a copy ofthe sublimeTracks of My Tears, by Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, and then he didn’t.
Lamenting its absence from the collection of singles in his collection he had blamed “Skinner” – we used surnames a lot at school, there were too many Johns and Richards – a boy in the year between us. As I recall, Rob had been at a party some time in the early 1970s, and he told me that Andy Skinner had “borrowed” the record to tape it. (Home Taping was Killing Music.)
In my mind this was tentatively associated with another Motown single of lesser status – although still a decent single – that we had in the pile, Do What You Gotta Do by the Four Tops, which peaked outside the top ten in 1969. My recollection was that it was a temporary swap which had become an indefinite one, as Rob and Andy’s paths hadn’t crossed again – at least not when they were carrying these Motown hits. In view of the difference in quality of the two records we felt somewhat cheated.
And here I was, unexpectedly in touch with Andy, someone I remembered from school, but only vaguely, as is the way with kids in a different year. So in a message to him I wrote, tongue in cheek, that Rob would like his copy of Tracks of My Tears back.
Perhaps unsurprisingly after so much time had elapsed, Andy replied that he had no memory of ‘blagging’ the record, nor did he remember Rob from school, and doubted if he owned the record. But when I tentatively suggested that if he found it, he might return it out of the blue to Rob, it appealed to his sense of humour and he readily agreed.
To Andy’s surprise, he did find Tracks of My Tears when he searched in his loft, so he dispatched it to Rob’s address with exactly the message you would send when returning something after 49 years.
I pictured Andy, in the Spotify era, wiring his cassette recorder up to the hi-fi like we all used to. I waited for the joke to find its mark, and in January 2020 Rob received the record and Andy’s note in the post. Rob and I have pranked each other in the past, so I wasn’t surprised that he sensed my hand in this and messaged me “This arrived today, without any address or any other clues. Don’t suppose it rings any bells with you?” I took that as a coded accusation. Well, really.
I tried to nudge his memory by sharing initially ‘vague’ recollections which soon became more specific, but in vain. He knew nothing about it, and the joke had fallen flat. I was prepared to leave it at that, and leave a bit of mystery in his life. But I wrote a follow-up article to Teacher’s Pet which mentioned Andy, and the game was up. Rob wrote “The Andy Skinner you wrote about. He wouldn’t be the same Andy Skinner that mysteriously returned the Tracks of My Tears single to me a couple of weeks ago, would he?” So: no joke, no mystery. Ah well.
So, did I make the whole thing up? Did I unintentionally spoof someone I barely remember from school into going up to his loft, locating a vintage 45 and randomly sending it to my brother? If so I’m actually quite proud. I understand that Picasso’s Girl With a Dove is on anonymous loan to the Courtauld Institute of Art in London. I might ask to have it back, if they don’t know where they got it from.
Perhaps I just remember something they don’t, even though I wasn’t directly involved: where music is involved my memory seems to be sharper. Or possibly, I remember the incident accurately, but have pinned it on the wrong guy. But it seems to be corroborated by Andy finding Tracks of My Tears when he didn’t think he owned it: also to some extent by the confirmed presence of Do What You Gotta Do in Rob’s collection – although Rob doesn’t recall how he acquired it, and Andy doesn’t recall ever owning it, so it hasn’t made a journey in the opposite direction. Most people are just too busy living their life to mentally archive it as they go.
But did you spot that line of marker just under the sleeve window? Perhaps there is writing behind that which might shed light on the mystery. I must ask Rob to take a look.
Well I’ve done all the work, but the call hasn’t come yet. I diligently prepared a list of my pet hates – the small things that really annoy me, you’re not allowed to say Covid, Donald Trump or cancer – and they’re ready to go into Room 101, in the programme where guests try to persuade the host to consign their hates to oblivion. The name is inspired by the torture room in George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four which reputedly contained “the worst thing in the world”.
The BBC named the series ironically: Orwell was inspired by a meeting room in Broadcasting House where he had to sit through meetings he found extremely tedious. I’ve given up waiting, so I’m going to share my list. When they call me, I’ll have to think up some new ones.
Terms and conditions apply
Commercial radio boasts to potential advertisers that it has a captive audience, usually busy driving, cooking, doing something requiring concentration which makes them less likely to switch channels or turn the radio off. Perhaps that used to be me, but now I have acquired the energy and resolve to cut the radio off as soon as the adverts come on. The disclaimers made this leap possible.
So I would turn on the radio hoping for some decent music, and just when I thought the adverts had run their course…
Standard UK minutes and texts. Prices may change. Rolling monthly contract. New customers in low-cost areas only. Traffic prioritisation applies. Offer ends 14th of March. Terms apply. See Plus.net/mobile.
All of this delivered at a frantic pace – often tweaked electronically to make it faster. Sometimes delivered breathlessly as if it’s all a terribly funny joke. In some cases advertisers have been sanctioned by the Advertising Standards Authority for their disclaimers being read out inaudibly fast. Shut up, just shut up!
Me and Alan Bennett, we’re afraid of Virginia Woolf
When my wife told me that she had started reading To the Lighthouse but never finished it, my competitive spirit was awakened, and I set to work. I soon began to understand why she found finishing the damned book as difficult as the characters inside found it to reach the damned Lighthouse. Woolf doesn’t go out of her way to be readable: she’s very writerly, the Meryl Streep of literature, if you like. Take a look at this single sentence:
She had in mind at the moment, rich and poor, high and low; the great in birth receiving from her, half grudging, some respect, for had she not in her veins the blood of that very noble, if slightly mythical, Italian house, whose daughters, scattered about English drawing-rooms in the nineteenth century, had lisped so charmingly, had stormed so wildly, and all her wit and her bearing and her temper came from them, and not from the sluggish English, or the cold Scotch; but more profoundly, she ruminated the other problem, of rich and poor, and the things she saw with her own eyes, weekly, daily, here or in London, when she visited this widow, or that struggling wife in person with a bag on her arm, and a note-book and pencil with which she wrote down in columns carefully ruled for the purpose wages and spendings, employment and unemployment, in the hope that thus she would cease to be a private woman whose charity was half a sop to her own indignation, half a relief to her own curiosity, and become what with her untrained mind she greatly admired, an investigator, elucidating the social problem.
Note how the only help you get here is a couple of semicolons, one of which Woolf teasingly places in the first line, before any confusion has had time to arise. I ploughed doggedly on to the end of the sentence, and the book. And indeed my wife has also now reached that wretched Lighthouse.
But difficult though she can be, Woolf can leave her readers with indelible phrases and ideas, like the marvellous passage from the same book describing the feeling we experience when we reach the limit of our intellectual journey: in this case Mr Ramsay – sure of Q – struggles to reach R:
…he was a failure – that R was beyond him. He would never reach R. On to R, once more. R—
Another idea has stayed in my memory:
Mrs. Ramsay saying, “Life stand still here”; Mrs. Ramsay making of the moment something permanent… —this was of the nature of a revelation. In the midst of chaos there was shape; this eternal passing and flowing (she looked at the clouds going and the leaves shaking) was struck into stability. Life stand still here, Mrs. Ramsay said.
This passage has sometimes come back to me when contemplating a scene, typically at a family gathering in summer, suddenly knowing that the moment will be imprinted on my memory forever, like a photograph. So, maddening though she may be, perhaps I have too much respect for Virginia Woolf to put her into Room 101.
Rhubarb rhubarb rhubarb
School dinners are character building. Having to finish my lumpy mashed potato, cold custard, sour lettuce and watercress (or face the wrath of the dinner lady) taught me to tolerate most food even if I didn’t enjoy it, which helped me survive my bachelor days. But I drew the line at rhubarb. At primary school, it seemed to be the default pudding, we got it at least once a week. I hated it, and it wasn’t just the school dinner approximation – I have tried “high quality” rhubarb desserts occasionally since, with no more enjoyment.
“You have to add loads of sugar” they say. Quite. It’s only the sugar that makes it remotely palatable: historically it was more often used as a medicine, and only became a food in the 18th century when sugar became more affordable.
I had an auntie of whom I was very fond, who was an excellent cook. She grew rhubarb in her garden, and three times in a row when I visited, she served up her famous crumble. She thought me a very fussy eater. I’m really not. I just don’t like rhubarb.
It all started so promisingly for the Electric Light Orchestra. I had been a big fan of the Move, and keenly anticipated Roy Wood’s new project, which aimed to “pick up where the Beatles left off”, using classical instruments to play rock music. Their first single, 10538 Overture was distinctive and atmospheric. Soon after, Roy Wood left and Jeff Lynne took charge.
The Beatles, enabled by George Martin’s musical background, had indeed used classical instruments very effectively in their records from Yesterday through to Eleanor Rigby and I am the Walrus. But these were exceptional songs, and the Beatles “left off” for a good reason – they had already fully explored the possibilities of using orchestral instruments in a pop and rock setting.
And although ELO achieved a tolerably Beatle-ish sound, I always found their songs predictable and uninteresting, and suspected that their huge popularity owed more to nostalgia for the Beatles’ 60s heyday than to any real quality. My heart sinks whenever their ploddy lethargic chug comes on the radio.
And the worst is Mr Blue Sky. Thematically identical to Here Comes the Sun, DJs think it’s clever to play it on a sunny day. According to Dominic King on the BBC, the song features “the most freakatastic vocoder since Sparky’s Magic Piano” – and this is a good thing? This limp and self-regarding twaddle (thanks for that phrase Andrew) takes up five minutes and six seconds of your life. Then just when you think your suffering might be over, the song awards itself a self-congratulatory coda, topped off a vocoder finale, the cherry on this queasy cake. Eew.
Mock the weak
Michael Palin is rarely wrong, and usually polite. But in Staged, a 2021 scripted mock-Zoom programme featuring David Tennant and Michael Sheen, Palin appears in cameo, gushing about his love of Staged on camera but once “off-air” immediately challenges Sheen’s assertion that “improvised comedy has produced a lot of good things.” “Has it?” he responds bluntly, saying that he doesn’t find improvisation very funny – and that the Pythons always worked hard on their scripts. (Except Graham Chapman, allegedly).
This was scripted comedy, where the humour came from Tennant and Sheen’s disappointment at being brutally cut down by one of their heroes. And of course Palin can act. But perhaps he wasn’t having to: he appeared to show genuine irritation about the trend towards improvisation. The Monty Python team did indeed take their comedy very seriously, writing in teams, assembling for lively and sometimes difficult script meetings where some ideas were rejected and others refined, until they had a programme they thought fit to put in front of the public.
All this is time consuming and expensive. No wonder TV schedulers prefer improv: just give a couple of drinks to a handful of moderately amusing people, shove them in a studio for a few hours, and keep the best bits. Voila, you’ve got a show.
John Cleese once remarked that it took him a day to write five minutes of comedy, but it took Peter Cook five minutes. Peter Cook was an improv genius, but it wouldn’t work if he tried to wing it live on TV: his funniest sketches may have started off the cuff, but they were refined, edited and rehearsed before being aired.
Perhaps the problem is that we know it’s a recording – if it were truly live, there would be a sense of danger – we would be more impressed with their speed and spontaneity. But knowing that it can be edited and cleaned up post-recording gives it the sterile safety of a circus viewed on TV. And the knowledge that the comics are able to prepare their material before the show provides another jeopardy-sapping safety net.
Improv comedy shows – on TV at least – make me feel like the only sober person at a loud party, assailed by competitive and aggressive – sometimes bullying – banter. They’re cheap, they’re lazy, and they’re fake.
Harry Kane to score next goal 6/1
Hard man actor Ray Winstone can often be seen on TV exhorting us, in his manly way, to wager with Bet365, typically during half time at football matches, when viewers might be tempted to add spice to a dull game in which they have no emotional investment. What kind of a man are you, he appears to be saying, if you won’t make a bet on how many corners West Bromwich Albion will be awarded in the big match against Fulham? More than fifty years after the Stones sang “he can’t be a man ’cause he doesn’t smoke the same cigarettes as me” they’re still trying to pull this crap on us.
Advertisers will advertise, of course. But in the UK TV cigarette adverts were banned from 1965, and tobacco and cigar adverts were banned from 1991. Alcoholic drinks have very tight restrictions on TV advertising. Just like tobacco and alcohol, gambling ruins lives – sometimes not only those of the gamblers, but their families’ lives too.
That such aggressive and high profile TV advertising is still allowed in 2021 for an unambiguously harmful industry is testament to the tenacity, efficacy and probably the generosity of the gambling lobby. It stinks.
A loose affiliation of millionaires and billionaires and baby
Twenty or thirty years ago, conspiracy theories were the preserve of a few harmless eccentrics on the fringes of society. Not any more: encouraged by the internet and an unhinged US president, they’ve gone mainstream. A majority of Trump voters believe their man was cheated by a liberal/Democrat conspiracy…many people believe Coronavirus was invented by a wealthy elite to oppress the population…people use the abbreviation MSM for mainstream media as if the BBC, the Daily Mail, the Sun, the Guardian and the Financial Times were homogeneous, all part of the same plot.
How strange, how baffling, how sad that the miracle of the internet, which puts so much of the world’s knowledge and wisdom in our pockets, has led us to this. This is an echo of an earlier period of history when the increasing affordability of printing, besides spreading knowledge and wisdom, led to an explosion of scurrilous pamphlets. It has never been easier to find information. But it has also never been easier to find lies, or for idiots and charlatans to amplify their voices. The curation of social media leads us into echo chambers which confirm and strengthen our opinions, causing ever sharper divisions in political discourse.
Why do these bizarre notions have such wide currency? The traditional image of a conspiracy theorist is of a sad, lonely, underwashed young man, looking for reasons to justify his lack of success. But now these ideas are put forward by clean, intelligent looking people with every appearance of respectability, and have gained hugely in popularity. Time will tell whether we are witnessing a temporary mania or a permanent structural shift away from evidence, truth and science towards superstition and belief – a return to an intellectual dark age. If it’s the latter, the outlook is bleak.
Roadworks on the A9 north of Inverness
Travel news next on BBC Radio 2! Yay. We have satnavs and Google Maps to give us up-to-the-moment information on the traffic ahead of us on the journeys we are actually making. Who in London is concerned about the Exeter by-pass, who in Manchester about the Hanger Lane gyratory? Beeb, please, stop boring us with irrelevant information and take a step into the 21st century.
Sorry about that, I feel better now. Entering month eleven of lockdown we all need a bit of a moan about something. Better splurge it out online than shout at the lady in the Co-op, I guess.
You can learn a lot from the way someone sneezes. When I joined a stockbroking startup in the 1990s, there was a quiet, highly competent nineteen year old called Sarah working in our back office. We soon noticed that if we needed something done, she would do it quickly and correctly, and we’d never have to ask twice. She was modest, almost meek in her demeanour. But she had a huge sneeze, sudden, high pitched and proud, which could be heard from distant offices.
Soon her diligence and ability were recognised, and she was promoted to an extremely well rewarded position as finance director while still very young. I didn’t recognise it at the time, but that mighty sneeze spoke of appetite and ambition, and marked her for greatness.
Our personal sneezing sound is typically set during youth, and everyone has their own signature style. Sneezes come in many varieties: the Splat, the Shout, the Kitten, the Mouse, the Squib, the Cannon… there is surely scope for academic research into how sneezing style might relate to personality. According to Doctor Gordon Siegel, a Chicago otolaryngologist, although sneezing is an involuntary part of the body’s defences, we can exercise a degree of control over the sound that comes out: Siegel cites an acquaintance who has successfully engineered his sneezes to come out as ‘horseshit!’
And there was F. Despite having a perfectly good name like Ian – ok, very like Ian – he preferred to be known by the name of a twentieth century European dictator. He enjoyed leading the team, and tried to play up the blokey side of his character, but was handicapped in this by his preference for eating crisps and chocolate bars over drinking in the pub. F would never sneeze in singles, but in bursts, and when this was happening he would intersperse his sternutation with expletives of increasing strength: Achoo! Bugger. Achoo! Bloody hell. Achoo! Oh fuck. This performance was designed to suggest a brave commander leading his troops onward into battle, despite suffering difficulties under which a lesser man would have buckled.
When Dad sneezed, he would pump his arm vigorously across his chest, as if the rest of his body was offering his nose moral support. A few years ago I took to doing this myself in half-mocking, affectionate tribute, but it’s now become just another habit. Also, I shout, AH-HOO! along with the sneeze, to make sure I’m the centre of attention, and that everyone else in the room knows what I’m going through. This moment belongs to me. And that’s not…excuse me…horseshit!
Gwerfyl looked out from the Eagles pub where we having dinner, where five people I didn’t recognise were seated at a table.
“Three of those people are your relatives”. That should have surprised me, but it didn’t. After all, this was Llanuwchllyn.
When my father died in 2015, it fell to me to sort out his papers. It wasn’t an especially onerous task: Dad was very organised, and everything was carefully filed. Once I had bundled up anything financial or legal for the solicitor, I was left with three envelopes containing information about the family: one for each of Dad’s parents, and one for Mum’s mother. Dad hadn’t created a family tree himself, but he had kept documents and letters from family members who had sought or provided information. The absence of an envelope for Mum’s father was, I think, only because there had been no correspondence from this quarter of the family.
I kept the envelopes safe, but thought no more of it until January 2017, when I sustained a heel injury trying to run further than I should. I thought that uploading the information I had inherited would make an interesting replacement for running as a winter diversion. But once I had signed up to Ancestry.com and started to add the data, momentum took me straight past that point, and into new researches as the website pointed me towards ancestors, great-uncles, great-aunties and cousins I had never known about. My family tree kept on growing.
I knew all four of my grandparents, and each had been strongly associated with a particular place. Nain (Dad’s mother) came from the Toxteth area of Liverpool. Some of Mum’s mother Sallie’s family can still be found around the Chirk and Wrexham area of north Wales where Sallie grew up, and Mum’s father Jack grew up and lived most of his life in Wallasey on the Wirral.
But it was my father’s father, Bob Edwards (or Taid as I knew him), whose extended family is still most closely connected to his childhood home. He was born on his father Evan’s farm Pantclyd, in Llanuwchllyn, North Wales, into a family which had farmed the area for generations. He was the fourth child of the nine who survived infancy.
Of course, this meant that my father had many cousins, and I have many second cousins descended from my great grandparents. And because Llanuwchllyn is a farming community, and the land is owned by family members, many still live in the area. But my Dad didn’t generally make much effort to keep in touch with his Welsh family, perhaps because he didn’t speak the language fluently.
Pantclyd held a fascination for me, no doubt in part because the house in Dolgellau where our family stayed with Nain and Taid when I was a boy was also called Pantclyd, renamed by Taid presumably in tribute to his childhood home. When I found out from a correspondent on Ancestry that an Edwards – Eiddon Edwards – was living in Pantclyd (Llanuwchllyn) my curiosity was aroused. Was the house and farm where my grandfather was born in 1883 still in the family, nearly 140 years later?
So I wrote an old-fashioned paper letter to Pantclyd, and within a couple of days Eiddon had emailed back confirming that he was indeed my second cousin. Pantclyd had come to him through his grandfather Llewelyn and his parents Idris and Ann. When he mentioned that his brother Geraint owned a couple of holiday cottages which he rented out, I resolved to make the trip to visit the Land of My Fathers.
I contacted Geraint, and booked up a week in September 2020 – he was kind enough to give us mates’ rates. During the Coronavirus lockdown, it looked doubtful whether the trip could still take place, so we were grateful to arrive at Talybont.
Prominent from the main road past Llanuwchllyn as we arrived was the statue of Sir Owen Morgan Edwards and his son Sir Ifan ab Owen Edwards. Sir Owen was my great grandfather Evan’s second cousin. It was the first time I’d seen any relatives honoured with a statue.
Sir Owen and his son Ifan were both champions of the Welsh language. Owen was an academic, and published many books and magazines promoting Welsh poets and writers. He also became a wealthy man, leaving an estate of £17,500 – a tidy sum in 1920. Ifan set up Urdd Gobaith Cymru (the Welsh League of Youth) which among other things, organises the Youth Eisteddfod.
I couldn’t go to Llanuwchllyn without visiting the grave of my great grandparents Evan and Elin Edwards, buried along with their son Thomas.
We were delighted to have been invited to Pantclyd, where we enjoyed a lovely lunch with Eiddon, his wife Heledd and their two young sons. Besides being my taid’s birthplace, two much sadder stories attached to Pantclyd. Two of Taid’s brothers died young: my namesake and great uncle Richard Edwards tragically drowned there in 1905 at the age of 20.
Eiddon took me on a tour of the grounds, and showed me the pool under a waterfall – perhaps where this happened.
Taid’s oldest brother Evan John also died young, in a shooting accident, just three years later at the age of 30.
Pantclyd is now a happy family home after being comprehensively renovated and extended in recent years by Eiddon, a builder by trade.
An undoubted highlight of the trip was visiting my dad’s favourite cousin Arthur Jones with his daughter Gwerfyl for morning coffee. Arthur is now a lively 98, full of stories and laughter. He pings out emails from his iPad like a young ‘un, and a couple of hours before we arrived he sent me a Facebook friend request.
Arthur fought in the Battle of Normandy with the Welsh Guards, arriving a few days (“Quite soon enough, thank you!”) after D-Day. He was a tank driver and fitter: he explained how his job was to drive the one at the rear: if a tank broke down, a fitter would have to get out of the tank – sometimes under fire – to replace the faulty part. Many fitters did not survive the war.
After the war Arthur had the less dangerous task of guard duty outside Buckingham Palace, and recalls that the young princesses Elizabeth and Margaret could be demanding employers, sending through reprimands if they felt they had not been saluted sufficiently smartly when returning to the Palace in the small hours.
Arthur later bumped into my dad in London at the Victory Parade on the Mall on June 8 1946.
“When it was all over and we were waiting for the crowd to disperse, suddenly an airman stood in front of me, Aelwyn!! He had spotted me as we marched down the Mall to our positions! We hadn’t met for years. The Sergeant Major who was standing in front of me turned round to blast me for talking on parade then decided to let it go!”
Being only 17 when the war started, Arthur at 98 is one the younger veterans, and has been in demand for TV interviews in recent years, sought after for his vivid and lucid wartime reminiscences.
His brother Rhys, eighteen years his senior, also fought in the Battle of Normandy: some twenty years after the war he wrote his wartime memoirs. When Rhys died in 1974 his daughter Mair found his story among his papers and circulated it to the family, and Arthur translated it from Welsh into English. It makes fascinating if sometimes difficult reading.
After the war Arthur went from tank to tanker: for four years he drove the milk tanker from the local creamery to Liverpool every day – in an unheated cabin through the bitter winter of 1947 – before being promoted to an office job as assistant manager. Eventually in 1965 he took over his brother’s shop and ran the sub post office with his wife Mair, before retiring eighteen years later.
Unfortunately I only took an interest in the family tree after my parents died, and there are many questions I would have like to ask my mum and dad about their childhood, their parents, grandparents, cousins, great-uncles and great-aunties, and all the other family anecdotes. So to meet someone like Arthur, who remembers my dad as a child, and has so many stories to tell, is very precious.
One story concerns his Aunty Maggie, my nain, a schoolteacher.
“Aunty Maggie was a very doughty lady indeed whose first words to us when she arrived on a visit were “Let me see your books!” Homework and satchels would vanish when we heard Uncle Bob’s car outside!”
Arthur also told an amusing story about my dad Aelwyn which I hadn’t heard before. Maggie told her son Aelwyn – about ten at the time – to take Arthur, about eight, who was round at their house for a day – for a walk up the hill from their house in Dolgellau. Perhaps Maggie had put up with as much noise from the boys as she could. Anyway, it seems Aelwyn resented being put in charge of his young cousin and he wanted to watch the cricket match: so he abandoned Arthur at the top of the hill and ran back down so he wouldn’t miss the first over. When taken to task, apparently, he replied that he had only been told to take Arthur up the hill.
Arthur is the fount of all knowledge about the Llanuwchllyn tree, and I wasn’t the first visitor hungry for family stories. On seeing a photo of his grandmother Elin, who died was Arthur was thirteen, he volunteered “I don’t think she had a tooth in her mouth!” He keeps an extensive family tree on a long paper scroll, much consulted by local genealogists.
Visiting in September 2020, we were restricted in what we could do. We weren’t able to bring our daughters along, or shake hands with my newly found relatives as I would wish. But I was able to meet four second cousins for the first time – the fourth being Irwyn, to whom Gwerfyl introduced us at the Eagles – and renew my acquaintance with the wonderful Arthur. Having lived near London and worked in the City for most of my life, I could have felt like a foreigner in a part of Britain where English is very much the second language. But the people were welcoming, and instead I felt the warm embrace of my Welsh family. It felt like coming home.
In contrast to the sad stories of Richard and Evan John, Debbie and I stumbled on a much happier tale from Pantclyd’s more recent history. We were walking up the Aran from Llanuwchllyn, headed towards a ladder stile over the corner of a stone wall. There was nobody in sight, until a man and woman emerged from our right. We met at the stile, and got chatting. I mentioned that we had visited Pantclyd, and he said he had grown up in a farm along the valley. His name was Robin, and his wife was Gill.
Gill then told how, when she was a girl, her family was on a camping holiday in Llanuwchllyn, when they were cut off from their destination by flooding. They were saved by Geraint and Eiddon’s father Idris Edwards, who allowed them to camp at Pantclyd. They liked it so much they ended up coming back every year. During their time staying at Pantclyd, Jill met Robin in the local chapel, and they were married in 1967.
Assuming that everyone in Llanuwchllyn would know Arthur, I mentioned that we had visited him, and Robin confirmed that he knew ‘Arthur shop’ and that they were related, to some degree. Arthur was able to confirm that Robin was indeed my third cousin, and for good measure, that he was Sir Robin, a noted physicist who had served as Vice-Chancellor at the University of Wales, Swansea for nine years. What were my chances of walking up a remote hill and bumping into a cousin and a knight of the realm? In Llanuwchllyn, I’d say, quite high.
Not a bowl made of copper, but one containing mostly 1p and 2p coins, awkward change from those days when cash was commonplace. It struck me that many houses in my village, Chorleywood – where most residents are lucky enough not to need every penny – might have just such a bowlful, waiting to be collected for a charity.
It was late summer 2011: like many others I was saddened by the terrible drought and famine in East Africa, and the Disaster Emergency Committee had launched an appeal. I thought of our copper bowl. I had time – a week of unused holiday – and I had pent-up energy accumulated during a long injury induced break from running. I decided to carry out a local collection. If that was successful, perhaps it could be scaled up nationally. Could this be my Geldof moment? First, I would have to see how it went in Chorleywood.
There are rules to follow, you can’t just go round rattling a tin. You have to apply to your local licensing authority – in my case Three Rivers District Council – for a licence.
The licence duly came through, and my bluff was called. Now I had to do it. I based my plan of campaign on a 2005 Electoral Register of Chorleywood West, the most recent I could get my hands on. From this I calculated there were 2,003 households to target for collection. My first task was to get the flyers designed and printed.
I ordered plenty of these A4 flyers, folded in half to A5, ready for insertion into clear sealable plastic bags for delivery. The idea was that householders could simply tip their spare coins into the bag ready for collection.
2,003, I discovered, is a large number of houses, especially in a fairly rural area like Chorleywood, where there are many long driveways, and lengthy walks between them. Luckily I had help from my wife, a daughter, some of her friends, and one or two friends dotted round the village.
The main distribution effort coincided with some of the hottest October weather seen in England, with temperatures approaching 30°C, which made a full day’s delivery challenging. But this was still the easy part. The challenge was always going to be the collection, with the embarrassment of approaching strangers to ask them for money.
By the time we had finished delivering the leaflets, it was time to start collecting from our starting point. I made up some simple but authentic ‘Authorised Collector” badges, and I began in my own road, where I had an early taste of the range of responses I could expect. One man opened his door, stared at me blankly while I made my brief pitch, then shook his head silently and closed the door. One lady opened her purse, and on failing to find much in the way of change, considered for a moment before placing a ten pound note in the bag.
One man who lived in a large gated house resisted the temptation use the intercom to tell me to go away: instead he buzzed the gate to allow me to approach his front door, where he made a donation. Perhaps he wished to dispel the impression that visitors to his castle weren’t welcome. Most gave something, but only one or two fitted my target profile – the ones who had accumulated small change that they didn’t need, which they were happy to donate.
As we ventured further into Chorleywood, a pattern emerged. We were doing this at a difficult time of year: the kids were at school and many houses were empty. By the time the occupants had returned it would be too dark to be knocking on doors. We made two attempts to collect from each address: if the second was unsuccessful we put a slip through the door.
My first full day of collections was only patchily successful, and I hadn’t needed any trips back to my car to relieve the weight of my shoulder bag. But one man said yes, I’ve got a whole shoebox full of 1p and 2p coins. Do you really want them? Yes, I explained, that’s exactly what we’re looking for. They’re in the attic, he said, can you come back in an hour? And there it was, a big box of coins. It took me twenty minutes to count and bag it, but I didn’t mind. For reasons which might not reflect well on me, I’ve always enjoyed counting money.
A number of encounters stayed in my mind. There was a very trusting old lady who asked me inside and chatted for ten minutes while she fussed around trying to find the bag. Don’t worry, I said, I’ve got plenty of spares. No, she said, it’s here somewhere. Of course she was just lonely and wanted a chat. There was a picture of a smiling boy in a stadium wearing a baseball cap. “My grandson” she said quietly. “They’re in America. I don’t see them very often.”
I reached the house of a friend of ours. She said she’d seen the leaflet and thought it was a great idea. “How’s it going?” she asked. It had been a slow morning. “So far I’ve got more material for a book than money” I replied glumly. They kept a jar for small change in their hallway so large that she needed my help to safely tip it out. “This is the moment it’s been waiting for” she said. That’s what I call a friend. Time to stop for the morning and end on a high.
One man said he had an accumulation of foreign coins, would I accept those? I thought, why not, we could get something for them. Another man raised his finger and said “Wait a minute.” He soon came with a Swiss 50 franc note, with about a quarter missing. “You’re welcome to this if you can use it.’ After a little research, I posted it off to the Swiss National Bank, and within a few days they sent back a brand new 50 franc note. Now that’s a country which takes its currency seriously. I was able to exchange it for about £35.
When my wife was collecting she called on one of the grandest houses in Chorleywood, a mansion in a row of mansions. The lady of the house invited her in, and then spent fifteen minutes explaining why she wasn’t going to give anything.
Of course, no-one is obliged to donate – after all, it’s their money. I’m not too fond of cold-callers on the doorstep myself. Many said they had already made a contribution to the TV appeal. But to gratuitously waste the collector’s time seemed a step too far. Perhaps she was lonely too.
There is an artist well-known in the village, who contributed generously, and then said “Now it’s your turn.” She had up a charitable foundation in the name of her son who had died tragically young, and asked for a donation. I was happy to oblige, reassuring her that the money was coming from my own pocket.
One of the incidental benefits of the project was the opportunity to get up close to some interesting and beautiful local houses. For years I had been amused by a sign announcing a house named after a southern US state, tucked out of sight down a long driveway. It seemed an absurd name for a house in commuter belt Hertfordshire. But on approach it was a large white house with a grand portico, surrounded by open country. With the unseasonably blue sky behind it, it could have been a plantation house in the Deep South.
One finding from our team of collectors was that we obtained better results collecting in our own roads, where we were better known and (hopefully) trusted. If I had been able to recruit a collector for each road, as well as having much less work to do, we might have collected more.
As the collection drew to a close, it was gratifying to receive a number of phone calls from people who had been out when I called, many with large piles of coins to contribute. It felt good to ring a doorbell knowing my visit was welcome.
I had my eye on another source of funds. In the City dealing room where I worked was a huge glass jar, into which people would drop their small change and leftover holiday coins and notes. Over a few years it had filled to a point where it took two people to move it. Having established that there was no plan to empty it and no proposed use for its contents, I was allowed to annex it.
But before simply tipping out the contents and counting them, I had another wheeze to increase revenue: a charity competition at £10 a ticket. Entrants had to guess the total value of UK currency in the jar, and half of the ticket money would be given out in prizes for the three closest guesses. Twenty-five entrants meant another £125 for the appeal.
The entries provided support for the idea of the wisdom of the crowd, with the mean of all the guesses coming in within 3% of the correct figure – although one respected analyst was so spectacularly wide of the mark that subsequently I regarded his work with scepticism. Some colleagues volunteered to help out on a quiet afternoon , and we spent a happy half hour counting. That jar contained £263.56 in British money, just 94p away from the winning guess. Adding in the money from the competition and the proceeds of selling a few Euros, the jar brought in nearly £400. It was quite an effort to take that lot to the bank.
Once all the collections were finished, and the coins bagged up, I drove my overburdened car to the nearest bank that was open on a Saturday morning to deposit it into the DEC East Africa Appeal account. I also found a dealer where I could exchange the accumulation of foreign coins. Adding everything together, we had raised £2,603.56 – the local contribution averaging slightly more than £1 per house.
Was it worth it? Yes of course, we raised a decent sum of money for an excellent cause, and the experience of planning and carrying out the collection was interesting and mostly enjoyable, if sometimes exhausting. Would I do it again? Well, no. The most stressful part was ringing on strangers’ doorbells. Perhaps I’m not sufficiently thick-skinned. And though we raised a worthwhile amount, it didn’t seem amazing for the effort and time we had put in. It would have been much easier to work (even) harder in my regular job and make a personal donation.
I remember calling on a house occupied by a couple I took to be recently retired. The man took me into his garage to show me some neatly arranged storage jars he had accumulated, each filled with a different denomination: 1p, 2p, 5p and 10p. He hadn’t really known what he was going to do with them, so he seemed quite grateful to have the opportunity to put them to good use. While he took them away to decant them, I chatted to his wife. “That’s a very kind gesture of your husband” I commented. Her face softened and her eyes seemed to lose their focus.
Gripping read, isn’t it? That’s how I spent my leisure time when I was 25. It’s the most important thing I’ve ever written, by a wide margin. Having left Deloitte Haskins & Sells the previous year citing technical differences with the examiners, I obtained a measure of closure by getting this article – criticising an aspect of their audit techniques – published in Accountancy, the most widely read magazine of that profession.
As a failed accountant, I didn’t exactly have the world at my feet. An employment agency sent me along for an interview for the role of assistant in the two-man statistics department of a small, specialised stockbroking firm, Gilbert Eliott & Co. I reported back that I did like the idea of working at a stockbrokers, but the job seemed pretty dull. The agency gave me some excellent advice: once I got settled in, she said, if I showed promise I could get the opportunity to try out on the sales desk, where the money was made.
So I had settled for a fairly dull job as assistant in the two-man Statistics department of a small, specialised stockbroking firm, Gilbert Eliott & Co. My boss Dick was about sixty, and I could see my future etched in his closed, tetchy old face, measured in endless priority percentage calculations, monthly preference and bond updates, and in thirty-nine annual fixed interest handbooks.
But one day while Mr George Baylis FCA – the firm’s personnel officer and a qualified accountant – was enjoying his complimentary copy of Accountancy, my face stared back at him from page 136. He let me know he had seen the article, and he must have mentioned it to his fellow partners. Within a week, the head of the preference department, Peter Thompson, had come into our tiny office – carefully choosing the hour when Dick was at lunch – and asked whether I would like to transfer to his department: initially to help with administration and dealing, but with a view to graduating to broking.
In the early 1980s the City was still largely populated by the old guard of aristocratic third sons, blackguards unsuited for the army or the church and old gents wandering in to to the office at ten from the Waterloo train, disappearing for lunch between one and four. Many were lazy, some were plain stupid. Steadily they were being replaced by sharp- witted lads from Essex, grammar school boys and even the odd graduate.
So when Mr Thompson made his offer, I didn’t hesitate. Given the calibre of some of my colleagues, it shouldn’t be difficult to make a mark. My knowledge of the stocks was comprehensive after the stats training, but the sales aspect of the job didn’t come easily: for a long time I was nervous of making a fool of myself on the telephone.
The partners must have thought the safest course was to assign me accounts where the firm was doing little business, so I couldn’t do much damage, and might improve our revenue there. After a slow start – Mr Wild, one of the partners, had to take me out to lunch to remind me that I was supposed to be bringing in new business as well as looking after the admin – ambition eventually overcame fear. One lunchtime when I was alone, minding the shop, it was as if a switch had been flicked in my head: suddenly I knew what to do. I made four sales calls, and two of them were successful. The two partners on the desk came back to a couple of decent dealing slips they hadn’t expected.
But the day I really got my feet under the desk was in 1983, on 3rd August which happens to be my birthday. A fund manager from a previously barren account which I had been carefully (but so far unsuccessfully) cultivating – supplying a stream of what I hoped was helpful information and analysis – called me up out of the blue. “Are you busy this morning?’ she asked. “Oh, one or two things on” I lied. She ignored my reply and pressed on. “Well, you will be now. Have you got a pen and paper? I want to sell these.” And she read out a long list of holdings. Over the day we got all the business done. Now I knew I could do the job.
Of course, the problem for the firm in assigning its barren accounts to the new guy was that I now knew that the revenue I had generated attached to me personally as much as it did to the firm. This made me confident of what I was worth to my employer, current or future.
And if a person gives you something, it is instinctive to thank them. But when Mr Thompson handed me a bonus slip representing an amount of money I could only have dreamt of three years earlier – and of course exceeded the social value of my work by a huge factor – I resisted the impulse to thank him. I simply nodded acknowledgement and said “OK.” Because the bonus was clearly a miserly percentage of the increased revenue I had brought in.
This was Thatcher’s decade, the age of the yuppie. Before long, opportunity knocked again in the shape of an approach from a rival firm. “Big Bang” was on the horizon, and broking firms, buoyed with cash from US and other banks, were aggressively recruiting. When Simon & Coates (soon to trade as Chase Manhattan) named the salary they were proposing to pay me – roughly triple what I had been earning before – I needed time to consider it. About three seconds. I tried to contain my excitement. “I think that sounds reasonable” I said. I was on my way. And all thanks to that very dull article.
“If you played for your primary school football team, come and stand over here.”
I proudly went and stood over there. So did three quarters of the class. The prefect who had been tasked with helping to stream the first year into equal ‘A’ and ‘B’ groups scratched his head and consulted the master. Then he pointed to McKenzie, the tallest boy in this large elite.
“You, come and stand here. The rest of you, stand next to him in order of height, tallest on the left.”
There was much jostling and preening in the middle ranks, but I knew my place, and went straight to the right. The cut was duly made two thirds of the way along the line, and I was consigned to the B-stream.
Watford Grammar liked to rub shoulders with prestigious private schools, and rugby was key to that strategy. The absence of football was the cause of periodic unsuccessful protests at the school. We started the term playing hockey, which I quite enjoyed, then after half term we were switched to rugby.
It was easy for me to stand out in this group. Most had no talent and no interest. I was fiercely competitive – with reasonable ball skills, and good acceleration. Mainly, I cared – I was determined. My tackling technique was sound: if I wanted to stop a boy, even a large one, he was coming down. Mr Morgan looked in despair at the kids trying not to get dirty, running away from the ball, shirking tackles, standing there shivering – generally ninnying about – and declared “Edwards is the only one of you with any guts!”
I was promoted to training for the U12 team. Dad thought I’d make an excellent scrum-half, but that position was taken. I can’t actually remember what position I was assigned – I certainly wasn’t part of the scrum – probably the wing, as I was given the job of throwing the ball in at the line-out. We worked out our signal: if I was told to throw long, I should throw short, and vice versa. I wondered how long it would take our opponents to crack that code.
The Saturday in January dawned crisp and cold. So cold that when Dad dropped me off at the school that afternoon, a master was waiting there to tell us the match was cancelled as the pitch was frozen hard. My debut would have to wait.
Dad loved rugby. He had played for London Welsh second team in the late 1940s, and captained their third team. He was of average height, and not heavily built, but fast and skilful. He recounted how, after he had once scored a try, a teammate had said ‘I knew we’d score as soon as I saw R.A.’s head go back.’
Eventually, though, he suddenly realised, as he was standing one afternoon on a muddy pitch in driving rain, that he wasn’t enjoying it any more, and retired from the game. He would sometimes go to Twickenham with his brother when England played Wales, but mostly watched on TV. My brother and I once had reason to be glad of his enthusiasm: after watching a thrilling Wales win, Dad leapt from his chair and said ‘Right, is Moore’s still open?’ and we rushed down to Mill End to buy the secondhand moped Rob and I had been eyeing up.
Rob’s unusual left leg restricted his running, and had ruled him out of playing football or rugby competitively. Dad would love to have a rugby playing son, and I was his last chance.
So far most of my rugby had been played against kids who were small, or uninterested, or both. When training resumed for our next school fixture, I had a taste of playing against larger boys who actually cared. At eleven years some had entered a rapid growth phase, and the gap in height and weight seemed to grow by the week. For a while I continued to hurl myself at them, but soon it occurred to me that I could get hurt, and my conviction started to waver.
So at the training session I spoke up and confessed to the coach that I didn’t want to be in the team. I just wasn’t enjoying it. He was disappointed: I had been chosen for my competitive spirit: where had that gone? But he accepted it, and asked if anyone else didn’t want to be there. A boy called Mark took advantage of the opportunity to make a more low key exit, and as we walked away he confided ‘I wish I had the gift of the gab like you.’ My brief spell in the U12s was over, and I now played rugby on Monday afternoons only.
When Dad died in 2015, I went through his address book to make sure everyone had been notified. One card went to Richard, about my age, the son of one of my Mum’s best friends. In his reply, after offering condolences, he wrote:
I will always remember how he gave me his old London Welsh rugby shirt when I started playing for them. I carried it around in my sports bag for the next five years as a good luck mascot.
I never knew that. I couldn’t have reached the heights of London Welsh. But I thought, if that fixture hadn’t been cancelled, had I stayed the course, Dad would have loved to give me that shirt.
The chance to meet one of your heroes is rare, so when I heard that Michael Palin was visiting Chorleywood Bookshop to sign his new book I snapped up a couple of tickets. Erebus: The Story of a Ship is a thoroughly researched and readable account of an exploration vessel which disappeared in 1845, and was finally found in 2014. But I wouldn’t have considered a purchase had it not been bundled with the opportunity to meet the great man. Craig, who accompanied me, was probably one of very few in the long queue with a genuine and deep interest in naval history.
Palin, sitting at the table greeting customers and signing books as quickly as his charm and good manners would allow, wore a slightly weary demeanour suggesting he was conscious of the transaction to which he was party: he wasn’t promoting a book so much as selling meet-and-greets. Perhaps to counter this perception (we were told he had a strict deadline to leave for another engagement) it was announced that photographs weren’t allowed, and he wouldn’t be posing for selfies. This would not be the occasion to recite your dead parrot lines.
Michael Palin has had a wonderful career. After the brilliant success of the Monty Python TV show and films, he has written and starred in other shows, been a successful writer of fiction, non fiction and children’s books, and a film actor. He has travelled the world many times for his documentaries, and served as president of the Royal Geographical Society. In 2019 he received a knighthood.
But he knows that it is his early work with Monty Python, touched with genius, which will endure, and is the reason why so many people are here. Today he’s in the business of selling books, and he does it very professionally. But I can’t escape the feeling that he’d rather be somewhere else.
Kelly Holmes became one of my biggest sporting heroes after I saw her win both the 800m and the 1500m in the stadium at the 2004 Athens Olympics. She had seemed surprised to win the 800m on 23 August, but five days later was imperious in the 1500m. She ran a relaxed race, in eighth position at the bell, and steadily moved through the field on the final lap to be right on the shoulder of the leaders coming into the home straight: she was unstoppable, and the British contingent in the stadium went crazy.
Her event was not just a signing: there was an interview in Christ Church Chorleywood, illustrated with video. She entered with a limp acquired during a 5k – testament to her continuing competitive spirit – but otherwise looked in excellent shape, capable of being first finisher at any parkrun she chose to enter, fourteen years after her Olympic triumphs.
She spoke movingly about her childhood, acknowledging the support from her mother – while describing her absentee father as ‘the sperm donor’ – and about her struggles with injury, which at one point caused her to self harm. To much applause we were shown videos of her gold medal winning performances, which, she admitted, she never tired of watching. Why would she? Once, after swearing, she looked around guiltily and said ‘Oh sorry! In a church! Or what is it, a cathedral?’
We queued to buy her book – a lifestyle guide, which again, I wouldn’t otherwise have bought – and more importantly, meet her. The queue was long, but she had time for everyone – she seemed to be enjoying every minute. When my turn came, I told her I had been in the stadium cheering her victories, and thanked her for making those Olympics so special. She was lovely: she signed my book and posed for a photo.
When I showed this to my wife she pointed out that I had put my arm around her waist. My god, so I did! How did I dare? Sorry, I can only suggest that she was such a friendly, approachable presence that it seemed natural, and that she seemed so small (5 feet 3) that it made me feel protective. Of a world beating athlete.
Sir Michael Palin and Dame Kelly Holmes have some things in common. Both have huge achievements to their credit, some years in their past. So why should their attitudes to continued celebrity be so different? Neither is likely to regain their previous heights.
But this is surely easier for Holmes to accept: every athlete realises they will start to slow after reaching 30 – in fact Holmes was 34 in Athens, and retired a short while later. She had, perhaps, the perfect timeline, in that she crowned an inconsistent and often frustrating career with brilliant success. She was able to go out on a huge high, with no regrets: this allows her an uncomplicated enjoyment of her celebrity.
Creatives like Palin, however, are likely to have a different perspective. His best work was as a writer and comic actor, nothing too physically strenuous. Why should it not be possible to maintain success at the same level into his old age? Probably because it is very difficult to sustain cutting edge creativity over a long period. Some comedians, of course, maintained a very long career: Bob Hope and George Burns spring to mind, but they were hardly revolutionary.
Monty Python, by contrast, was mould-breaking, and moulds can be broken but once. To sustain that level of creativity, of continuous surprise, is hardly possible. Spike Milligan possibly succeeded, but he was a once in a generation comic genius. It is much more common for comedians to follow the route, as Palin has, to writing books and acting.
When Peter Cook died, some obituaries regretted that he had never fulfilled his early potential. Jonathan Ross pointed out that Cook had simply fulfilled his potential early. So it is for Palin and the rest of the Python team. They could never hope to match what they achieved in those early years. Just ask Paul McCartney.
Alan looked listlessly at the minutes he had taken of the meeting. It wouldn’t be difficult to tidy them up so they would read smoothly. A coherent and complete account of – what? The bickerings of academics, mostly old, male and white. No wonder there were so many murders in Oxford.
It wouldn’t be difficult, and that was the problem: he was bored, although the professors would often praise his diplomatic skills. He had the knack of nudging warring parties to compromises, quelling storms in this parish teacup. Perhaps he had no enemies because he was so mildly flavoured and preferred to avoid conflict.
He remembered with a start the school reunion he’d agreed to attend the following Saturday in Reading, a group of five gathering to mark thirty years since leaving school. He should probably book a room at the pub. But the website showed no rooms available. Damn, left it too late. There was a Premier Inn within ten minutes’ walk, but he couldn’t face it. He resolved to forego alcohol and drive back to his own bed.
When he arrived the boys were already onto their second pint, and the conversation was lively. The others had all arranged taxis or booked rooms in town, and after the initial greetings he felt out of step, excluded by sobriety as they grew louder. Disengaged, he let his eyes wander round the group.
Look at Robert, the cool one, who’d been in a band at school and dropped out before his final year. After a decade of trying and failing to make it as a musician and songwriter, two failed marriages and three children, his dad had lent him the money to buy a beat-up old studio, and he’d refitted it, and done very nicely, thank you: now he rubbed shoulders with rock royalty, and was regaling them with stories of Eric Clapton and Van Morrison. Like the gold rush, thought Alan, the prospectors don’t often get rich, it’s the guy who sells them the picks and shovels. Robert had lived.
And Martin the nerd, laughing enthusiastically at Robert’s anecdotes – already alternating his G&Ts with straight tonic water – who had wanted nothing more, since he was fourteen, than to be an accountant, and had applied himself single-mindedly to this steady ambition. Surely he was even more boring than Alan? Maybe not, Alan had to concede, because he had such an air of contentment – seemed so relaxed in his skin – that he made very easy company, never seeking the limelight – one of the gang.
Mark, he remembered, had come in to school on a motorbike almost as soon as he reached sixteen, and had spent his weekends tinkering with it. Whether to make it faster or just noisier Alan never knew. Mark had trained as an engineer, and had wound up in charge of a large car plant in the Midlands. He still favoured a leather jacket – although the evening was warm – and walked unevenly, the steel pins in his leg a souvenir of his biking days. He asserted, as he waved his pint about, that Brexit would make no difference to the business.
Alan went to challenge this view, but mistimed his effort to be heard over the volume of his alcohol-fuelled friends. His mind drifted back to the sixth form: his French teacher “Your work is excellent, Loudon. Have you considered Oxbridge?” And Mr Kershaw had been right, in a way. Alan had sailed into Oxford with near perfect A-levels. He hadn’t enjoyed the atmosphere of the college – initially he found it stifling – but he applied himself well to his studies, and when his tutor pointed out that he was on course for a solid first, and encouraged him to study for a doctorate, Alan had felt flattered.
Eager to please, and not drawn to any external careers, he had remained in academia out of inertia and…lack of imagination? He’d found exams easy since primary school, and had been happy to let himself be swept straight ahead, as long as he received approval, never curious about other avenues, wary of the world outside.
So Alan started a doctoral thesis. On, then, to R. But he soon realised he was not yet at Q: he was not sure he had even reached N yet. He could answer questions easily, it seemed, but was he smart enough to ask one? He felt his intellect – or fatally, his curiosity – reaching its limit. With help from his tutor, he had concocted a question, and answered it in a way that was…fine, and duly collected his doctorate. But – and he was still embarrassed by how long he had taken to realise this – even if he became England’s greatest expert on Maurois, Molière and Mauriac, so what? He would still rank behind a hundred professeurs and professeures who had grown up speaking French, steeped in the literature and culture.
So he had lost any interest in pursuing a teaching post, but having met Alison he didn’t want to leave Oxford. He accepted a modest job in administration, and had risen to become secretary to one of the smaller colleges.
Nigel, who had got wind of the gathering and invited himself along, was now holding forth on how share prices were about to plummet. Annoying know-it-all little Nigel, Wormtail of the group, who had gone to work in the City and now owned a huge house in Beaconsfield. Thirty years on, bumptious as ever.
But that was it. The others all loved what they did. Square pegs who’d found square holes. Except for the accountant Martin, there had been no career plan, just trial and error, opportunistic – sometimes desperate – leaps from rock to rock. But here they all were, full of life, brimming with stories. Alan found himself fingering the car keys in his pocket, although it was not yet ten o’clock.