Sallie

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

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

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

Chorleywood Tumbi

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here are some of Sallie’s sayings:

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

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

Here are some of the things Sallie did:

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

Here are some of the people and things Sallie liked:

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

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

The Rolling Stones (“dirty!”- I wish I’d told her they’d still be going strong fifty years later
Jimmy Savile (“horrible man!” – my god, how right she was)
The Queen Mother (“waving all the time, with that silly grin on her face!”)
Loud music coming from our bedroom (“thump thump thump – it sounds like the washing machine! They all sound the same!”)
Edward Heath

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

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

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

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

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

Written by Kath and Aelwyn

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Aelwyn on John Cooper (1997)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I now see Chester and Runcorn in a new light.

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

Sallie and Kath

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

Sallie and Jack

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

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

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

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

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

Sallie and Philip

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

Buzzworld-X

Once upon a time, there was a fellow called Mr Blobby.  He was bulbous and pink with big yellow spots, and back in the 1990s he was very popular for a while.  He would knock things over and mess things up, repeating his catchphrase “blobby blobby blobby”.  Some people thought he was hilarious but other people thought he was just very annoying.  He was often on the television, and even had a number one record, cleverly called “Mr Blobby.”

His daddy, Noel, thought so much of Mr Blobby that he decided it would be a great idea to build a special Blobby theme park, and he did.  For a while people flocked to see Crinkley Bottom in Somerset, to marvel at Mr Blobby’s house, Dunblobbin, and laugh at the antics of actors taking turns in the Blobby costume.

But soon the novelty wore off and the visitors stopped coming. The moss and weeds invaded Dunblobbin, and it stood neglected and forgotten. Until one day a man in a suit came by, and decided to buy the ruined park. He had a plan.

***********

The man in a suit was called Slater, a property man.  Blobby park was tacky and dilapidated but it sat on an attractive site with excellent transport connections.  His plans needed more space, and he had quietly bought up large pieces of land around the old site.  Also he recognised talent, and had heard about Dean Costello.

The French might call him an enfant terrible, the Germans might call him a wunderkind.  Just 29 years old, flamboyant and louche, Costello had already started to transform the theme park world.  Beginning from a junior position at Disney, he had turned around sagging visitor numbers at Disneyland Paris by devising exciting new attractions and by adding new twists to old favourites.  Disney had copied his ideas to their other parks with great success, and Costello had been well rewarded.

But he felt he had outgrown the Company, and the Company, becoming wary of his increasingly ambitious and edgy ideas – some of which they felt were unsuitable for a family attraction – didn’t argue.  So Costello parted from Disney, quite wealthy thank you very much, but now he was starting to get bored.  So the two men went into partnership: Slater would bring his property savvy and arrange the finance, while Costello would design the park.

They called it Buzzworld-X.  It wasn’t for children or young families: there would be a minimum age of 16 for admission, 18 for the numerous bars and some of the rides.  This would be a place where teenagers and young adults would want to come: professionals with money to spend, stag and hen parties.  A destination where you could spend two or three days, and would stay for a couple of nights in onsite hotels.  Costello, liberated from the constraints of Disney, set to work with relish on designing high-octane attractions.  

The park opened in a blaze of publicity, and the guests on that first weekend had never experienced anything like it.  Did you ever ride the Tower of Terror?  The Terror is supposed to arise from sitting down in a seat, clipped in with a safety harness, as an elevator pretended to plummet in a scheduled and carefully managed drop.  

Buzzworld-X’s Death Drop was different –  Costello wanted to give them the fright of their lives.  He had specified a tower tall enough for a three second freefall drop.  The lucky punters were given ferocious health warnings and made to sign a blood-curdling waiver.  No seats, no seatbelts.  They were taken up to a great height in a theatrically creaky lift, by dustily uniformed bellhops who were clearly part of the show.  Nothing happened for a full five minutes, although some conspicuous signals had been given: the bellhops started exchanging nervous glances.  A couple of security men came in and started conferring in anxious whispers.  

After a while the mood among the guests turned from nervous anticipation to genuine fear, and one of the security men moved the bellhops aside and began an announcement:  “Excuse me ladies and gentlemen, we have been advised there is an issue with this attraction.  May we ask…”

There was a loud wrenching sound, the lift lurched to one side and suddenly plummeted, in a way that did not feel controlled at all.  At that moment, most of the customers believed they were about to die.  There were enough sightlines that they could see ground level approaching at speed, but they didn’t know there was a deep subterranean chamber where the fall would be cushioned.

The park roller coasters were ramped up to the maximum g-force fit and healthy guests could stand: anyone admitting to the mildest condition was excluded. Mechanical and hologram technology was harnessed to completely persuade riders that their car was about to hit a solid brick wall at 70 miles per hour.

The guests were usually too terrified to enjoy the attractions at the time, but in retrospect, buoyed by relief at their survival, realised they had actually had a wonderful time, and told all their friends that yes, they really must go.  Soon Buzzworld-X was booked out at weekends, busy all through the week.

Some of the attractions were sex or alcohol themed, and the tabloid press was soon raging against this “depraved, decadent and dangerous” park.  Of course the bad publicity only made people want to visit even more.  Kids rushed to go as soon as they turned sixteen: it became a rite of passage.

Inevitably there were casualties.  There were heart attacks and seizures, injuries as guests, in their terror, tried to escape.  One woman leapt to her death, believing she was about to be consumed by the flames of Hellfire Hall.  Unsurprisingly these incidents were more frequent than at more sedate adventure parks, but guests seemed happy to accept the risk that came with the extra thrills: indeed the sense of real danger only seemed to pull the punters in.  Buzzworld-X made a big feature – and quite a lot of money – out of selling life insurance as an add-on to the tickets.

Costello’s proudest creation, though, was Gun Battle.  You took your seat in a wild west style steam train, cow catcher and all, which trundled through a creaky wooden town.  You peered, unimpressed at actors playing out a stagey gunfight.  Suddenly a group of hooded men with genuine looking modern weapons stormed in and appeared to shoot the cowboys, who collapsed with copious blood pouring from their wounds. 

Thus far you might have believed you were watching the scheduled attraction.  Then the gunmen mounted the stage and started aiming into the train, and several of the passengers – perhaps including the one sitting next to you – then collapsed in a pool of blood.  You weren’t to know that these were park employees, posing as typical customers, paid to pretend to die several times a day.  More than once, serious injuries were caused by the stampede for the exits.

********

The first summer had exceeded their most optimistic projections, and bankers were besieging Slater with offers of finance for expansion. One Friday evening in September, Slater arrived at the park to treat Costello to dinner at the resort’s swankiest restaurant, said to be in the running for a Michelin rosette.  Without waiting to be asked, the waiter brought a bottle of Dom Perignon to their table.  The two men felt pretty good as they sipped their champagne and sampled their amuse-bouches.  

“You’ve done a fantastic job Dino” said Slater, waving his arms expansively.  “How do you get all these crazy ideas?”

“Oh, they just…come into my head…”

“But you have them so well trained!  I saw those gun dudes just outside…they’re pretty damned convincing!  If I didn’t know better…”

“Gun dudes?”

“You know, from Gun Battle.”  Costello continued to look blank.

Gun Battle’s closed until Sunday.  We had to give it a deep clean.”

“Then who on earth…”  But Costello was no longer listening.  He was staring towards the entrance to the restaurant.  Slater followed his gaze and they flung themselves under the table.

The Picture

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

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

Red Bridge – Chirk ‘56. John Brockbank

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

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

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

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

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

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

The remnants of the Red Bridge. (Phil Roberts)

And I’m told the bridge used to look just as Jack had painted it.

Lockdown Diary: part 2

Saturday 4 April – Day 12

Well I never said I was going to write every day. Yesterday I went down to Chorleywood to get the shopping, which has become a nerve wracking experience. This is what a butcher’s queue looks like now:

That looked like a good half-hour queue, so I decided to try again next time.

Comparisons with wartime are facile and melodramatic: those of us lucky to be away from the front line are being told to sit on our sofas, not to go into battle.  But when exercising or shopping, every person starts to look like a loaded gun.  Every case of Coronavirus is a game of Russian roulette – and the older you are, the fewer chambers there are in the cylinder.

Here are a few of the words and phrases which have shot to prominence in 2020:

Coronavirus 
COVID-19
Social distancing 
Lockdown (which used to be something that happened on Pointless)
Showing mild symptoms
Personal protection equipment 
Underlying health condition
Tested positive 
Trump idiocy
Self-isolation
Zoom
Exit strategy
Flattening the curve
Furlough
(One or two of these may have gained currency before 2020).
The good weather is back today, so we took the opportunity to sit in the garden.  Yesterday evening the BBC weatherman forecast a warm and sunny weekend in tones reminiscent of gathering doom.  They really don’t want us to go out in it, that wouldn’t be helpful.  But our country lane has never been so busy with families out walking, and will only get busier in the next few weeks as the famous Philipshill Wood bluebells come into flower.  A walk in the woods is no longer a relaxing experience.
Sunday 5 April – Day 13
A beautiful day as forecast, another opportunity to chill in the garden.
This evening we watched the Queen’s broadcast.  What a pro!  She strikes exactly the right note of solemnity and empathy.  Of course it’s easier for her in some ways – we can’t all choose which palace to be locked down in – but she is 93 years old, her husband is 98 years old, even her son is 71 years old and contracted Coronavirus.  Her position affords her no protection.
Soon after, the news breaks that Boris Johnson has been admitted to hospital, having exhibited persistent symptoms.  We are told this is for “routine tests” but we know there is nothing routine about this virus.  It is a sombre moment.  Social media is full of posts saying things like “Can’t stand the man, but wishing him a speedy recovery.”  Keyboard warriors can’t take even the briefest of holidays, it seems.
We fork out £15 to see Jane Austen’s Emma on Sky.  Its cinema release was scuppered, so they need to get their money back somehow.
Monday 6 April – Day 14
Stock markets rally this morning on evidence that quarantine measures in Italy and Spain may be working.  My feeling is that it is way too early to declare any victory – medical or economic – over the virus until we have a plausible exit strategy.  Coronavirus is likely to cast a huge shadow on economic activity for a long time.  Some newspapers have criticised the government for its refusal to name a date when lockdown might be relaxed, but surely we should wait and learn from countries where events are ahead of us – China, Italy, Spain – before deciding our strategy.
This evening we learn that Boris Johnson has gone into intensive care.  This should not have been a surprise, as many Coronavirus hospital admissions are for that very purpose, but the news is still shocking.  The good wishes expressed across the political spectrum confirm the sense of national crisis.  Boris Johnson’s experience will also serve as a wake up call to many people who have not considered themselves threatened by the virus: at 55 he is not especially old, and seemed in robust good health.  If he is not safe, none of us is safe.
Tuesday 7 April – Day 15
As the household’s designated shopper, I’m following instructions and shopping as infrequently as possible.  Here is my top ten list of food and drink items in descending order of their power to force me into the supermarket:
Milk
Bread
Meat
Granny Smiths apples
Red wine
McVities plain chocolate digestive biscuits
Tropicana orange juice
Lindt and Sprungli 70% dark chocolate 
Heineken lager
Nescafé Gold Blend
Bear with me please, I have sponsors to think about.  I have left pasta off the list because we seem to be well stocked, and rice because our Tesco delivery included an enormous bag of basmati rice: the medium sized bags were all gone, so we had to choose between tiny and huge.  We’re on our last bottle of milk, so we’ve decided that I’ll brave Waitrose in Rickmansworth tomorrow lunchtime or afternoon.  Looking forward to it already.
Here’s Debbie and Betty – because, why not?

Lockdown Diary: part 1

 

mallow

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

Monday 23 March 2020 – Day 0

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

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

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

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

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

 

Tuesday 24 March – Day 1

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

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

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

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

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

Betty

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Thursday 26 March – Day 3

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

Roe

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

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

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

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

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

 

Friday 27 March – Day 4

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

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

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


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

His bloody project

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

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

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

The Laboratory in Chestnut Avenue

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bridle Lane

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Secret Genius of Charles III

(or On the Authorship of Shakespeare’s Plays)

by de Vere Edwards          (Sunday 22 March 2263)

The public face
 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

George Harrison, Paul McCartney, George Martin and John Lennon. Presumably a publicity shot.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 
 
Charles – forgotten songwriting genius

 

Taid

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

taid census

Taid002

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

Temperance

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

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

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

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

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

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

Taid MBE Investiture letter001
Invitation to M.B.E. Investiture.  Not sure about the date of the letter…

Taid at MBE ceremony001
Taid receives his certificate for fifty years’ service to the National Savings Movement in 1966

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

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

Evening story

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

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

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

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

Dad wrote this:

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

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

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

Pantclyd in 2020

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

 

Nine Handy Trouble-saving Opera Hacks

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

Radames to Aida: “I’m sorry darling, but you know I can’t discuss army business.”

Don José to Micaëla : “Oh yes, Carmen’s hot alright, but she’s crazy.  Will you marry me?”

 

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

Cavaradossi to Angelotti: “Sorry mate, you’re not hiding down my well.”

Violetta to Alfredo: “No worries, I’ve had my BCG.”
Calaf to Ping, Pang and Pong: “…and if I get them wrong?…OK, I think I’ll pass.”

Butterfly to Pinkerton: “Marry you? Do you think I was born yesterday?”

 

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

 

Mimi: “Ah, there are the matches!”

Please feel free to suggest more in comments.

Passing Back the Wisdom

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dear 1973 Nick

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

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

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

from 2011 Nick

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

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

 

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

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

The Rolling Stones, O2 Arena, 25 November 2012

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

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

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

Stones ticket001

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Set List

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

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

Basil Murray Savage 1910-1994

mr-savage-wfs-0001

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

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

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

Savage signature001

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

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

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

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

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

From a female perspective:

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

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

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

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

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

A boy he taught said this:

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

savage grave

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

Paddington Bear and the Cholesterol Bath

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Teacher’s Pet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rob’s ticket. Retained it was.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here is the set list from that fantastic evening:

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

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

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

 

The shadow on the lawn

Chestnut Avenue

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

pool

David Gauke: My Part in Not Preventing His Downfall

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gauke001

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

.

Night visits

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nain and Taid, with Aelwyn (left) and Glyn

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

51

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

“How’s my all-American boy?”

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

“Dad, what are you doing?”

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

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

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

Eventually he raises his head and changes the subject.

“So, you had a good time at camp?”

“Yeah, pretty good.”

“And you’re an American boy now?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So that was the liberation of Reagan Square?”

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

“Jeez.”

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

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

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

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

“The what?”

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

“So Dad?”

“Uh?”

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

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

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

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

“Ive, can we go for a coffee?”

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

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

“I’m so sorry, Wash.”

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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