When we visited New York City in May 2007, my wife and daughters proposed a shopping trip to Bloomingdale’s. We agreed that everyone would have a better time if I did something else instead, and there was something I very much wanted to do. I’m a huge fan of music, and much of the music I love is by African-American artists. I was thrilled to learn that you could visit and tour the historic Apollo Theater in Harlem, so I took a yellow taxi to West 125th Street.
A charming fellow called Billy Mitchell welcomed the guests on the tour, with shout-outs for those of us who had travelled from overseas. He showed a montage of photos on the wall of many of the stars who had appeared there: the famous names just kept on coming. There was a large party of black schoolchildren, a few adult black Americans, and just one other white person – like me, an Englishman. As we filed in to our seats, I found myself in line behind him. I took my seat in a different row, not wishing to create a tiny white ghetto.
Billy is a fascinating character. One of fourteen children, he had a tough upbringing, spending much time in foster care away from his parents. I suspect, like many other small guys, he learned to live on his wits and his sense of humour. Hard work and a likeable and engaging personality probably helped too. He first got involved with the Apollo in 1965 at the age of 15: his mother had sent him to borrow some money from his aunt, who lived near the theater, and he was waiting outside when owner Frank Schiffman said “Hey kid, you want to make some money?” The job turned out to be running errands for Berry Gordy, who had brought his Motown show to the Apollo.
The show that night featured the Supremes, the Temptations, the Four Tops, Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder. Billy has been associated with the Apollo in some or other capacity ever since, and is now the official Apollo historian and tour guide.
Billy filled us in on the history of the theater. It opened in 1913 as Hurtig & Seamon’s New Burlesque Theater. Surprisingly, in view of the building’s later history, there was a strict “Whites Only” policy: in the past Harlem (formerly New Haarlem) had been largely a Dutch and Jewish quarter. After Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia banned burlesque in New York, the theater reopened as the Apollo in 1934, catering to the black community. In 1983 the theater was protected by the conferral of state and city landmark status.
Billy told the story of the famous Tree of Hope. When this landmark Harlem tree was felled in 1934 as part of the widening of 7th Avenue, the owner of the Apollo bought a piece of the stump and had it set on a pedestal onstage. Performers would touch the tree as they went on stage for good luck, a tradition which continues to this day.
Billy’s history with the place was fascinating. “I started meeting all the stars that were performing here. Imagine, I saw Stevie Wonder when he was 15. Eventually, I saw Michael Jackson and his brothers. Michael was nine years old when they first came and performed on the Amateur Night.”
If the Apollo Theater had a king, it was James Brown. He played there more than any other performer, and recorded his legendary, thrilling albumLive at the Apollo there in October 1962. Brown lay in state there after his death in December 2006. Mitchell said that Brown took a keen interest in his schooling:
“I met James Brown who convinced me the importance of getting a good education. He kept asking how my grades were going. He would give me money if the grades were taking off. He convinced me to raise my hand in class if there was a time the teacher was teaching something I didn’t understand.”
That evening was Amateur Night, and a group of the children would be attending. Billy told us how it worked. The audience was famously demanding: if they’d seen enough of an act, they would start booing, and a fellow known as “the executioner” would appear with a broom from the side and sweep them off the stage. Vaudeville tap dancer “Sandman” Sims played this role, from the 1950s until 2000. The unfortunate performer might also be chased offstage by a man with a cap pistol, accompanied by the sound of a siren. Billy explained the rules to the people who would be in the audience that night. “If the act’s no good, you gotta boo. I don’t care if it’s your grandma, if she’s no good, you boo her ass right off that stage!”
Then came the opportunity to sing in our own miniature Amateur Night. I was tempted by the chance to perform on that legendary stage, but lack any talent to do it justice, and stayed in my seat. Billy had a stern warning for young rap artists. “I do not want to hear the N-word on this stage. That word has been used to oppress, hurt and humiliate black people for many years. If I hear it today, I will test your jaw.”
The show was charming. Several of the children sang beautifully, while others recited poetry. My compatriot had a decent stab at Tracks of My Tears.
I had enjoyed my visit so much that when we visited NYC again in April 2022, I wanted to repeat it, and this time I persuaded my family to join me. I emailed ahead to request that we could be added to a scheduled tour: a visit was arranged for 11 am on Tuesday, and we took the subway to Harlem.
Billy greeted me like an old friend, although I’m pretty sure I remembered him better than he remembered me. Once again there were introductions and shout-outs for each party. The main group of children were shiny, bright, well-behaved and enthusiastic, putting me in mind of the kids Jack Black leads astray in School of Rock. We were the only British representatives: otherwise there were families from Florida, Ireland, France and Spain.
Once again, I was struck by the absence of white Americans at this special place. Of course, on a Wednesday morning many would be working. But given the history of the Apollo, many of the potential visitors would, like me, be of retirement age – and, New York, like London, has plenty of domestic tourism. Were these Americans nervous of visiting Harlem? Or less interested in celebrating the huge contribution of African-Americans to American music? It recalled for me the British Invasion of the 1960s, when it took bands like The Rolling Stones and The Animals to bring an appreciation of rhythm and blues music to a mainstream American audience.
After Billy had taken us through the history of the Apollo, he again offered us the opportunity to perform. We were told that you didn’t have to be good, just take to take your chance to be there: and that although booing was part of the deal at Amateur Night, it was not allowed in our little show unless a performer walked past the Tree of Hope without touching it. That disappointed one of the boys who complained “But we want to be booed!” This time I had come prepared, so that when Billy motioned to me that I might like to join the volunteers on stage, I was able to gesture expansively to Alice, who as our talented singer had been delegated to represent the family, and was already up there.
The first man to perform sang some lines of gospel so beautifully that the volunteers waiting their turn suddenly looked twice as nervous. Was this going to be the standard? But Billy helped set their minds at rest by getting him to confirm that he was a professional singer. Everyone did their bit – the French fellow sang us Frère Jacques – and was warmly received. Alice elected to sing Gershwin’s Summertime, a song she had often heard as a lullaby many years ago, and which she sang in a school concert when she was eleven.
The word “historic” hardly does the Apollo justice – Billy Mitchell even showed Michelle Obama and her daughters round in 2010. Here is the astonishing list of some of the acts who have performed at the Apollo. While by far the biggest contribution has come from African-American artists, all communities have been part of the story, and the Apollo’s reputation has made it a bucket list venue for leading white performers like Paul McCartney and Taylor Swift. Quite a few acts had their first big break at the Apollo’s legendary Amateur Night:
Ben E. King
Bob Marley and The Wailers
Buddy Holly and the Crickets (courted the audience by playing more blues-style material – recreated here for The Buddy Holly Story (1978))
Diana Ross & The Supremes
Dionne Warwick (performed and won at Amateur Night)
Ella Fitzgerald (made her singing debut in 1934 aged 17 at the Apollo, and later won the Amateur Night first prize of $25)
Elvis Costello (recorded his excellent TV music series Spectacle at the Apollo)
The Four Tops
Gladys Knight (performed at Amateur Night) and the Pips
Guns N’ Roses
The Isley Brothers
James Brown (performed at Amateur Night)
Jimi Hendrix (won an amateur musician contest in 1964)
Lauryn Hill (had to contend with booing after a shaky start in her Amateur Night performance in 1987 at the age of thirteen – but persevered and won the crowd over)
Mary J. Blige
Michael Jackson (performed at nine years old at Amateur Night in 1967 as one of the Jackson Brothers. Jackson played a free concert at the Apollo on April 24, 2002, said to be his final on-stage performance before his death in 2009)
Mick Jagger: “I came to watch James Brown…I was sitting down at the back. He asked me to come onstage and I tried to run out…and they forced me to come onstage.”
Otis Redding (here singing Pain in my Heart from 1964 – a woman in the audience calls out “Sing it pretty!” – and he does, he does)
Pearl Bailey (performed at Amateur Night)
Paul McCartney (played there in 2010. He described it as “the Holy Grail”, adding that he “dreamed of playing here for many a year” On arriving at the theater, he asked to see Billy Mitchell, and asked Mitchell to introduce him on stage.)
On many tourist experiences the punters are herded like cattle and milked for cash at every opportunity, and ticking off the big sights can be dispiriting. But our visit to the Apollo was intimate and joyful. Billy Mitchell’s knowledge and enthusiasm was infectious, and it was a privilege to hear those stories and walk on that stage. If you love your music and find yourself in New York City, be sure to visit the Apollo Theater, Harlem.
Alice took the rap, wrongly I believe. It was 25th May 2005 – I know that because it was one of the most famous nights in Champions League history, the Miracle of Istanbul.
Unaware that the match was scheduled for that evening – or that Liverpool would be finalists – I had arranged for Mum and Dad to look after the girls, and bought us tickets for to see Jack Dee at the Wycombe Swan. He was very funny. I don’t think he had taken account of the Champions League calendar either, because after the interval he moaned (amusingly) about missing the match, and goaded the football fans in the audience by threatening to reveal the half-time score – which I now know was 3-0 to AC Milan.
Later, back in the car park, I overheard excited football talk coming from the next car. I turned on the radio and heard the story of Liverpool’s amazing comeback, and penalty shootout victory.
Dad regarded himself as Welsh, and I see myself as a Watford man, but we were both born in Liverpool, and would support them against anyone but Watford. So back at home, he had no doubt been looking forward to a night watching the footie while Mum fielded the kids. I imagine him getting steadily gloomier as AC Milan built up their three goal lead in the first half.
About seven minutes into the second half, there was a cry from the kitchen accompanied by the sound of breaking glass. Dad went straight to the kitchen, where he found Mum staring at a mess of glass shards and Marmite adorning the kitchen floor. Alice had picked up a jar by the lid, which hadn’t been properly screwed on, and a half spiral of contact coupled with the stickiness of the product had kept the jar and its contents attached just long enough to lift it over the hard tiled kitchen floor.
Mum and Dad set to work clearing up the dangerous, sticky mess while keeping Rachel and Alice at a safe distance. Finally, calm and order was restored, and Dad could return to the football. It was three all. In a six minute period, Gerrard, Šmicer and Alonso had all scored – the most amazing comeback in Champions League history.
And Dad had missed it all. AC Milan then steadied their ship, and there were no further goals in normal time or extra time, and Liverpool triumphed in the penalty shootout.
But who should take the blame for that Marmite disaster? Debbie is a wonderful cook. My contribution in the kitchen is to clear up afterwards, and in doing so I frequently find lids sat loosely atop ingredient jars. And just today I found the Ariel top not completely screwed on. Chaos and anarchy.
Of course, it’s never a good idea to pick up jars or bottles by the lid. But Alice was only eight, and entitled to believe that sensible adults wouldn’t have left it in a hazardous state. So I wonder if the Marmite had been put back in the cupboard after Debbie had left it unscrewed. Now I’m not comparing this to the Dreyfus affair or the Birmingham Six, but I do think there might have been a miscarriage of justice here.
I wouldn’t describe Debbie as Marmite – I don’t think anyone hates her, and I love her very much. But she does sometimes fail to screw caps and lids on properly. And d’you know what, that’s probably the worst thing about her.
When my grandparents Sallie and Jack came to live with us in Chorleywood in 1964, it was, I imagine, part of the deal that we would be getting a dachshund. They had owned one before, also called Tumbi.
This dog was in turn named after a dog their son (my uncle) Philip had got to know in India during the war, named after a village in Gujarat.
Unaware of the adage that a dog is for life, Mum and Dad promised my brother Rob a dog and me a cat as presents, and soon after we took delivery of a black-and-tan dachshund puppy, and later a white kitten which I named Cleopatra, shortened to Cleo, later known as Puddha.
At eight years old, my early experience of dogs had not been positive. I remember being nipped by a poodle in a cafe when I had made an unwelcome approach. I had also been scared of a Labrador owned by my Mum’s friend, which no doubt sensed and reflected my fear, and barked at me for what seemed a full half hour. So it took some time before I achieved any rapport with Tumbi. At first I must have assumed she spoke English, otherwise why else would I have endlessly repeated “do your widdle” while walking her round the garden?
If Rob and I were under any illusion that Tumbi and Cleo belonged to us, it didn’t last long: Sallie fed them, and looked after them during the daytime. That was enough to earn Tumbi’s loyalty. The cat, of course, belonged to nobody.
Tumbi – whom we also called Wumpy, or Wumpy-Tump – was born, we were told, on 29th February 1964, so only had a true birthday every four years. She was fiercely loyal to friends and family, and would howl her greeting when familiar legs entered the house. She had a good memory, and even occasional visitors were assured of a warm welcome. The exception to this was my Auntie Sheila, who was always greeted with suspicion, even hostility. I assume this was because Tumbi detected essence of cat on her clothing. Also she must have had a bad experience with the milkman, as the clinking of milk bottles sent her into a fury.
We tried to get her to chase away the squirrels who were devouring the bird food, opening the back door with the instruction “Send ‘em off!” She followed the same path across the lawn every time, heedless of where the varmints might be. I’m pretty sure I remember seeing a couple of squirrels simply stepping back a few paces, as if from a railway track.
We didn’t train Tumbi well. Sallie was not a big eater, which was often the source of arguments with my mum, who worried that she wasn’t feeding herself properly. Sallie would surreptitiously feed the dog pieces of her teatime cake, or dinner from the table. This made Tumbi seriously overweight and gave her terrible habits: she came to expect food at the table, and would insistently howl for it – a problem which got worse as she grew older.
Sallie was 77 when she came to live with us, so she didn’t walk quickly. Perhaps she felt Tumbi needed more exercise, so as she walked along the flinty surface of Park Avenue, she would kick the stones with her boots for Tumbi to chase after. This created another bad habit: Tumbi started barking ceaselessly for us to throw stones for her. Not very safe – there’s a reason why dogs are usually encouraged to chase sticks instead. Also very annoying, to us and the neighbours. Once, just to get our own back, at a riverside picnic Rob and I threw such a barrage of ‘tonys for her that she just stood there standing in the stream barking furiously, too paralysed with choice to chase any of them.
Sallie died when Tumbi was seven. Our cleaning lady Mrs Galloway arrived to find her lifeless in her rocking chair, with Tumbi lying patiently at her feet.
Mum was houseproud, and wouldn’t have had a dog out of choice, but she dutifully took on responsibility. It wasn’t easy: with Mum and Dad both working, the dog was left alone for long periods, and as she got older some neighbours reported her howling in distress when left alone during the day. With hindsight we should have hired a dog walker, or at least a visitor to let her out in the middle of the day.
Encouraged by Mum, we spoke to Tumbi in her own language, a joint development I think by Mum and her cousin Mollie. Suddie wob mom doll meant “thought he was mother’s darling” and Ubble sings doin’ to los meant “awful things they’re doing to you”. I also gave her a full name, in keeping with what I felt was her (hem) aristocratic bearing: Fittipaldi J. Esterhazy J. Mustang-Goulash J. Los J. Sisyphus J. Tumbi. That requires explanation.
Fittipaldi – after Emerson Fittipaldi, the racing driver, obviously.
J’s – we once held a pencil to her paw in an attempt to get her to sign her name, and it came out looking vaguely like a “J”.
Esterhazy – after Charles Marie Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy, the villain of the Dreyfus affair. Who apparently spent his last years writing anti-Semitic articles in Harpenden.
Mustang-Goulash – no idea, probably just added for extra length and comic effect
Los – from Tumbi language, meaning “you”.
Sisyphus – Tumbi’s habit of chasing stones, and particularly, pushing them up hills only to see them roll back down again, earned her this nickname from Dad,
Tumbi – her actual name.
In the second half of Tumbi’s life, Rob and I were sometimes a little mean to her. Back when Gary Glitter was thought of as nothing worse than an untalented prat (innocent times), we would sit Tumbi vertically – which can’t have been good for her long spine – and make her dance along to I’m the Leader of the Gang, her paws punch in time. And when Rob brought home his life partner, she was shocked at our cruelty, addressing the dog in her own language with phrases like “Are you dettin old an’ useless an’ dyin’, den?” “Are you big fat useless lump, den?”
The cat, of course, could easily outwit Tumbi. If the dog was occupying the basket, the cat, being fed on demand, would approach her food cupboard miaowing. We then put out some food, but she walked away immediately. Tumbi (definitely not fed on demand) would rush out of her basket hoping for the leftovers, only to find the food dish snatched away, and Puddha settled in her warm basket.
Tumbi always enjoyed her walkies, and in her last years at Chipperfield she still got excited when her lead was brought out. Once as I walked along our road, she followed at a snail’s pace on a gradually climbing bank and found herself on top of a steep slope, trapped by her short, arthritic limbs. So I walked her back to the start of her climb, and turned round. She went exactly the same way, and got stuck again. I didn’t try to walk her again. In her dotage she also walked into our garden pond, and got lost in our (pleasant but not huge) garden. Sometimes she would plod into her basket, quite unaware that the cat was already in residence. Puddha tolerated this intrusion with weary acceptance.
Tumbi had been part of my life from eight years old through grammar school and university to the beginning of my career. When I visited Mum and Dad from London one Sunday in early 1980, Tumbi looked confused and immobile – completely out of sorts. Dad said he would take her to the vet the next morning. I asked if he was expecting any treatment to be recommended for her, and he shook his head. I got to the floor, gave her a last cuddle, and said “Going to see Nana”. Mum was touched and amused to hear this from an avowed atheist.
Tumbi did have some bad habits, largely because Sallie had been more of an indulgent grandma than a mum to her. But Tumbi was loyal, affectionate and fun, and I loved to hear her charging upstairs to lie at the end of my bed on weekend mornings. She had lived to a ripe old age, and almost reached her fourth birthday (i.e. nearly sixteen years). I’m sure she went to doggie heaven. Well, probably.
If you’ve just landed on rikramblings.com for the first time, I need your help. I’d like to know how you got here. (Feel free to jump to the last couple of paragraphs).
There is a type of blogger who specialises in blogging about blogging. It is a short cut to getting engagement: it attracts bloggers who are interested in blogging. They will shower you with likes and comments, as long as you play the game, and lavish your own likes and comments on their blogs about blogging.
If you think this sounds incestuous and dull, you’re not wrong. So please excuse me for joining in with this dreary game. But I seek the answer to a mystery. The graph above shows that during the last week the number of visitors to Ramblings has increased roughly tenfold, although I’ve made no extra effort to promote the blog. Naturally my first reaction was that at last the quality of my writing has been recognised. However, as I thought about it further, this conclusion seemed optimistic.
My web host, WordPress, provides some information about how visitors have reached my site. Some come from WordPress itself: actual followers who want to read what I have written, friends and family who are being loyal (and I appreciate it), or fellow bloggers who hope that if they follow my site, I will follow theirs. Some come from social media: I might sometimes plug a post in a Facebook group – and one ex-politician with a decent following once linked to my post on his Twitter. Day to day, though, most visits come from search engines, which have found my site in response to users’ search terms.
WordPress sometimes lists which search engines have provided hits to my pages: Bing, DuckDuckGo and even Baidu feature. (I assume the Communist Party of China is monitoring my blog carefully to defend against the risk of counter-revolution.) But presumably the great majority come from Google, in line with their market share – perhaps their algorithm has somehow moved my blog up its search rankings?
About 90% of the recent surge in visits comes from search engines, very few of which are identified. Fewer still have their search terms specified. The percentage of visits to my homepage – where you can scroll down through all my posts – is also about 90%, with only 10% landing on individual posts.
This is surprising, because a Google user will find it far more useful to land on the particular short post matching his search terms than on the homepage, where it might be buried under scores of other posts. Why are these searches not being directed more accurately?
I’m wary of this apparent surge in popularity, because it hasn’t been accompanied by any increase in engagement, such as comments showing that the reader has read and understood, maybe even enjoyed the post.
(Although many comments are spam: some are outright gibberish, while others say generic things like “Great Post!”. One comment on my Edward Lear trail blog even said “Thanks! I found your post super informative and helpful!”. Followers of that blog will realise immediately that the comment could not have come from an actual reader).
Likes, while always welcome, are a much weaker form of engagement. Many come from other bloggers simply trying to get more likes for their own blog in return. WordPress gets far fewer likes as a percentage of views than Facebook or Twitter, because most people who land on the page are not signed in – they need to register for a WordPress account before they can like or comment on a blog, and few go to that trouble.
The absence of any comments or likes from all these extra visits makes me question the depth of interest – possibly even the existence – of these new readers. What were they looking for, and did they manage to find it in my blog?
So, if you’ve landed on this blog for the first time, and feel like helping clear up my confusion, please take a minute to log in or register on WordPress, and either message me or post a comment below, letting me know:
Which search engine you used
What your search terms were
Whether you found what you were searching for in my blog.
Who knows, I might even be able to help you find what you’re looking for. That would put you one up on Bono.
Not talking about me, I’d need to live to be, um, very old. I’m talking about John Sebastian of The Lovin’ Spoonful, a wonderful group from the US, who recorded the achingly beautiful Darlin’ Be Home Soon in late 1966. (They loved an apostrophe.)
In 1966 Francis Ford Coppola commissioned Sebastian to write music for the his film You’re a Big Boy Now. Sebastian said that he wrote the song as “pleas for a partner to spend a few minutes talking before leaving…. but you never knew if the other person was actually there listening or was already gone”.
After the recording was completed, the producer discovered that an engineer had mistakenly erased Sebastian’s vocal track, so he had to re-record it the next day. Sebastian said: “What you hear on the record is me, a half hour after learning that my original vocal track had been erased. You can even hear my voice quiver a little at the end. That was me thinking about the vocal we lost and wanting to kill someone.”
Zal Yanovsky, Lovin’ Spoonful’s lead guitarist, hated the song. He thought it was sappy, and accused Sebastian of going soft. During a performance on The Ed Sullivan Show Yanovsky clowned about mocking Sebastian’s heartfelt delivery. Come on Zal, don’t be so rude. No-one had cancelled the Beatles after Yesterday, or the Stones after As Tears Go By. And Lovin’ Spoonful’s Daydream wasn’t exactly Long Tall Sally now, was it?
Despite these unpromising incidents, it’s the tenderest, sweetest song about missing a loved one. Sebastian wooed the crowd with it at an impromptu performance at Woodstock. It even rhymes dawdled with toddled. But…do you remember being confused by this line from Paul Simon?
I was twenty-one years when I wrote this song I'm twenty-two now, but I won't be for long
Well, Darling Be Home Soon has a line which is just as baffling:
A quarter of my life is almost past
How could he possibly know that? Did he know how long he was going to live? And almost? What spurious precision is this? Did he recalculate the fraction each time he sang the song in his career?
So, John Sebastian was born on 17th March 1944. Let’s say he wrote the song in September 1966, when he was twenty-two and a half. For that to be a quarter of his life, he must live to be ninety. I suppose we can be generous about the almost – after all, almost might be a few seconds earlier. Still, it seems presumptuous to promise yourself ninety years. But he’s doing fine, he’s 78 and let’s hope he’s in good health and gets there – the man who brought us this beautiful song, and the marvellous Summer in the City deserves nothing less. All being well here, I certainly intend to raise a glass to him on 17th March 2034. I’ve put a note in my diary.
“Sarah could have worked at Wynnstay Hall as a young girl. My mother told me that she was an intelligent woman, who could read and write, which was unusual in those days; and that she would write letters for people in the village at sixpence a time. There were few schools at the time, so the family assumed she was taught in Wynnstay Hall. Mother also said that she was allowed to live rent-free in her cottage on Dee Side, Newbridge.”
Mollie’s son Phil has been able to add some colour to this:
“Mollie’s memory was of a woman who wasn’t ashamed or embarrassed about the situation. It was an “open” arrangement. So I think Sarah felt loved and appreciated, and local people came to her to have their letters written by her and read to them by her. Indeed it appears that she made a living out of it. She lived on the estate rent-free which suggests at the very least a warm relationship between and her landlord. He wanted to help her out of personal feelings or obligations.”
(Phil himself was once told by a friend that he resembled a gallery portrait, which coincidentally turned out to be of one of the Williams-Wynns.)
So on thin evidence, happy to weave a high-born narrative, our family concluded that Sarah might have received the favours of education and free accommodation thanks to her relationship with one of the Sir Watkins. The nature of the supposed relationship, however, is unclear.
The first possibility is that she was allowed to live rent free because her father John Rowley or her husband John Williams might have died in an accident in the Wynnstay colliery, Ruabon, or following a work related sickness. But John Rowley died in 1855 of asthma, at the age of 66, which doesn’t seem to meet the (probably very high) threshold for a landlord or employer to provide support: and by then Sarah was living with her husband, and would not then have needed help with the rent. I have not found a death record for John Williams, although his daughter Edith, born 1866, was said not to remember him. The manner of his death could yet explain the rent free arrangement.
The second possibility is that Sir Watkin, 5th Baronet, had a relationship with a local girl in about 1827, and that Sarah was his illegitimate daughter. The third is that Sir Watkin, 6th Baronet, had a relationship with Sarah herself, perhaps around 1846, and that she bore his child.
The 5th Baronet grew to be seventeen and half stone, which sometimes caused chairs to collapse under him, and his contemporary Lady Holland, commented “Sir Watkin’s tongue is immensely too big for his mouth and his utterance is so impeded by it that what he attempts to articulate is generally unintelligible.” His size and the unfortunate style of his speech earned him the soubriquet le gros commandant Whof Whof Whof when he was garrisoned in Bordeaux in 1814 as Colonel of the Denbighshire Militia.
(When I shared this rumour of our aristocratic ancestry with my daughter Rachel, she was initially excited, picturing her 4 x great grandfather as Colin Firth playing Mr Darcy. Less so after her first seconds of research uncovered le gros commandant Whof Whof Whof.)
His son the 6th Baronet hunted four days a week, having been appointed master of the hunt at 23. He was a director of the Great Western Railway, and in 1845 served as treasurer of the Salop Infirmary in Shrewsbury. After Wynnstay was almost totally destroyed by fire in 1858, Sir Watkin had it rebuilt between 1859 and 1865 on the same site.
Let’s check the speculation against some facts: looking firstly at the possibility that Sarah was Sir Watkin, 5th Baronet’s illegitimate daughter. If this could be proven, then I, my brother, our children and all my first, second, third and fourth cousins descended from Sarah’s mother could claim direct lineage from the Welsh kings and princes.
Sarah’s mother is recorded as Elizabeth Rowley née Davies (1794-1868). She married John Rowley, a coalminer, on 26 May 1828, when she was 34.
Within four months her daughter Sarah was baptised on 17 September 1828 – when the 5th Baronet was 56.
The record shows Sarah’s parents as John and Elizabeth Rowley. So does that destroy the theory that the real father was Sir Watkin? Well, not quite. If he had been the actual father, he was hardly likely to admit to it on official records. Perhaps he came to a private settlement with Elizabeth, while local man John Rowley very decently stepped in to save her reputation – and later helped Sarah to get an education, and allowed her to live rent-free, because he felt some responsibility for her.
That said, Elizabeth’s age of 34 when Sarah was born doesn’t quite sit with the stereotype of a young servant being seduced (or worse) by the Lord of the Manor.
Now look at the possibility that the younger Sir Watkin, 6th Baronet had a relationship with Sarah herself. If he did father a child with Sarah, most likely it was her first, John Williams (junior) who was baptised in 1847 when Sarah was 19 and Sir Watkin was 27, still a bachelor.
But again, the official record shows no hint of illegitimacy: Sarah had married coalminer John Williams (senior) thirteen months earlier in September 1846:
So if Sir Watkin was actually the father, then either the baptism took place some months or years after the birth (which did sometimes happen, especially in poorer families) – or else Sir Watkin seduced or imposed himself on a young married woman. In this version John Williams senior would be the knight in shining armour who stepped in to marry Sarah and save her from ruin.
Sarah had seven children in total – the fifth being my great grandmother Alice – and died in 1894 aged 65. It seems less likely that Sir Watkin, 6th Baronet fathered any others after John junior, although it is possible he carried on the relationship indefinitely disregarding her marriage to John Williams.
So there are problems in believing either theory about the connection between one of the Sir Watkins and Sarah. And greater problems in finding any documentary evidence to substantiate them.
But modern science offers a possible solution. Perhaps I can wield the sledgehammer of technology to crack the nut of family gossip. Inexplicably the current Baronet did not respond to my offer to fund a DNA test which might solve the mystery. Luckily, however, Ancestry.com offers DNA tests, and where there is a match between customers, it indicates how close the relationship is likely to be, e.g. third cousin once removed. And those who have built public family trees on their website can get hints as to which part of the tree their match might come from, e.g. which set of great x3 grandparents they have in common.
So here’s the plan. Ancestry currently shows me 258 DNA matches estimated to be 4th cousin or closer, and 18,758 matches reckoned to be more distant family. A few of the closer matches are relatives I know personally, and some others I have been able to place in my family tree. But the great majority remain a mystery to me. This is not surprising: many of the matches indicate a fifth, sixth cousin (or more distant) relationship. A sixth cousin, for example, shares your great x5 grandparents. To locate them in your tree, you need to go up seven generations from yourself to your common ancestors, and back down seven generations to your cousin. Few family trees are this extensive or reliable.
Of the thousands of DNA matches, some might come from Sir Watkins’ descendants. If it is true that the 5th Baronet fathered Sarah with Elizabeth Rowley née Davies, then any descendants of this pairing – which include my family – will be carrying some Williams-Wynn DNA, and should show up as a match. Any descendants of the 5th Baronet of my generation would be my fourth cousins, or closer.
(If, however, the 6th Baronet fathered a child with Sarah Williams née Rowley, then only the descendants of that child (or those children) will carry the Williams-Wynn DNA. If, as seems more likely (or less unlikely), that child was John Williams junior, then the DNA match will show only to his descendants, unfortunately not to descendants (like me) of his sister Alice – a match between one of John Williams junior’s descendants and the Williams-Wynn family would be needed to confirm this theory.)
I can make a start by looking at the Williams-Wynn family: if a member of that family has built a tree and also taken a public DNA test, then they should show as a DNA match if they are indeed some kind of cousin. That could at last provide some hard evidence. I could also go through the over 19,000 matches Ancestry has shown me, looking for a connection. But that’s looking for a needle in a haystack. There might, however, be a useful short cut.
My tree currently shows John Rowley married to Elizabeth Davies, and John Williams senior married to Sarah Rowley: no relationship to either Sir Watkin is shown. So as it stands, Ancestry would not cross-reference any matches from Williams-Wynn DNA to my tree. But if I speculatively connect Elizabeth Davies to the 5th Baronet, and Sarah Rowley to the 6th Baronet, and then upload a good portion of the Williams-Wynn family tree (assuming, presumptuously, that it is also my family), then perhaps Ancestry, using its Thru-Lines software, will show me DNA matches with provable connections to the Williams-Wynn line.
So, to work. Uploading the Williams-Wynn tree is not a trivial task: it is a large and fecund family, but the more thorough I am in this work, the more likely I am to snare a Williams-Wynn descendant in my DNA trap. There must be hundreds of them, of whom a few will have a family tree on Ancestry, and some will have taken one of their DNA tests.
I can’t prove a negative – it will hardly settle the issue if nothing turns up. But it’s possible I could find a link, and how wonderful it would be to put some substance to this ancient rumour. I will report again after a month or two. Watch this space.
When I was about eleven, I was an avid collector of coins, attracted by the romance of finding Victorian pennies, halfpennies and once, a silver Edwardian shilling in my change. A fondness for money itself may also have played a part. The announcement in 1966 of plans for decimalisation injected urgency into my hobby, and when I grew old enough to do a paper round, a large part of the proceeds went towards this solitary pastime.
Occasionally I bought a copy of Coins and Medals, before moving downmarket to the livelier upstart Coin Monthly. But it was probably as a reader of the former that I casually asked my father whether he had any medals from the war.
He replied that he had not, because he had never claimed them. Probably like many others, he had regarded these baubles as a poor reward for years of putting his life at risk in the service of His Majesty. But then he thought, why not? and decided to send off for them. Of course, he still remembered his Service Number. Before long, he had received – over twenty years after the war ended – four medals: the War Medal 1939-1945, the Defence Medal, the 1939-1945 Star, and specifically for his main theatre of service, the Burma Star.
I was impressed by the speed and efficiency with which they were delivered: less so by the medals themselves. “Silver” coins minted before 1947 still consisted of 50% actual silver. But the War Medal and the Defence Medal, although silver in colour, were made of cupro-nickel. More disappointingly, they carried no identification, suggesting medals stacked up in a warehouse, waiting to be claimed. There was nothing personal about them: I could not have expressed this at the time, but I was left with the impression that the government had regarded the recipients not as individuals but as a homogeneous, expendable mass.
My mother’s parents lived with us, and after my Dad’s medals arrived, my grandfather Jack Brockbank similarly decided to see if he could still claim his medals from the Great War – by now nearly fifty years previous.
To his surprise, after filling in a form, they arrived. He had been awarded the British War Medal and the Victory Medal.
I found these far more impressive. The British War Medal was struck in silver, and showed St George on horseback trampling a skull and cross-bones and a shield showing the Prussian eagle. The Victory Medal showed a winged figure of Victory, and was inscribed “The Great War For Civilisation 1914-1919”, dating the end of the war to the Treaty of Versailles. Perhaps from our perspective the Second World War more closely fits the description of a “war for civilisation”.
But it was the edge which fascinated me: both medals were inscribed “173612 DVR. J. BROCKBANK. RE.” Although the medal was still meagre recompense for the dangers he had faced, it was at least personal – something the recipient could be proud to own.
Relatively few of the British War Medals survive: when the Hunt brothers attempted to corner the silver market in 1979, the silver price went up eightfold, and their bullion value far exceeded their market value as medals: as a result, many were melted down.
In the 1920s the British War Medal and Victory Medal acquired the nickname Mutt and Jeff when worn together, inspired by the US newspaper comic strip. When accompanied by other commonly awarded medal, the 1914–15 Star (or the 1914 Star), the set of three were humorously known as Pip, Squeak and Wilfred, after three popular comic strip characters, a dog, a penguin and a rabbit.
My father and grandfather allowed me to be custodian of their medals, but as a collector, I didn’t want to leave it there. Some time around 1970 I bought a few of the other WW2 medals, where they were affordable from paper round pay.
I also acquired a 1914-15 Star, the one which Jack had not received. I noticed that it had an inscription on the back, but I didn’t pay it much attention, and my small medal collection spent half a century largely undisturbed on my bookshelf in its Coinval album. Just occasionally I’d glance at them, and feel gratitude, with a flicker of peacetime boomer guilt, that I’d never been called upon to fight in a war, as my grandfather and father were.
2022 began with a flurry of renewed work on my family tree, as the 1921 Census emerged. In the course of my researches, I read about a Facebook page called Medals Going Home, run by postman and genealogist Adam Simpson-York. He acquires named WW1 medals and other identifiable memorabilia on eBay, and reunites them with descendants or other family members. To do this he uses Ancestry.com to follow the family down to the present, and social media such as Facebook to locate living family members to receive the medal. His randomly scattered acts of altruism have been featured on the BBC’s One Show.
What a marvellous idea! To track down a missing medal belonging to a particular serviceman or woman is virtually impossible. But going the other way, pushing rather than pulling, as it were – starting from a named medal including a Service Number (especially one with a less common surname) – it is frequently possible to find their grandchildren, or great-nieces and great-nephews etc. And a medal which has been lost, forgotten, sold, stolen or cleared out of a house at some point over the last hundred years can again find a home where it is valued.
I remembered the 1914-15 Star I had bought, and went to look at it for the first time in years: it would mean so much more to the recipient’s family than to me.
Using the Ancestry website I started building W. B. Boast’s family tree. I soon established that his full name was William Benjamin Boast, born in Lambeth, London in 1887. He got through the war, married and had a couple of children, and lived until 1956 – so there could be some living descendants.
I also found his naval record, which tells us that he joined the Navy in 1903 when he was 16 years old, and lists the ships he crewed. The record also tells us that he was 5 foot 6, with auburn hair, hazel eyes and a fresh complexion, that he had a scar on his lower lip, two scars on his right hand, and tattoos of a girl’s head in a star on his right arm, and a sword on his left arm. It shows his progress from Boy, 2nd Class to Able Seaman in three years.
He served on HMS Malaya from January 1916 to April 1919, fighting at the Battle of Jutland on 31 May 1916. The Malaya was hit eight times and took major damage as it was last in line of the squadron of fast battleships which had to turn right round, one after the other, in the face of the full German line. A total of 65 men died in the battle, or later of their injuries, and the Malaya got home with a serious list.
W.B. Boast was invalided out in 1919 following the amputation of the third finger of his right hand. Back in civilian life in 1921, he worked as an electrical fitter in Willesden, London, and was still doing so in 1939.
But I was no nearer to finding the next generation down after his daughter and son. So I enlisted Adam’s help at Medals Going Home. Within 48 hours, he emailed me to say that he had found Able Seaman Boast’s granddaughter: he included her telephone number and said she would be expecting my call.
I called her, a lovely lady living in Great Yarmouth. She was only three when her grandfather died, so she didn’t remember him, but she knew that he had served in the Navy, and was very pleased to know that the medal would be on its way to her house. And that, I think, is where it belongs.
My parents were members of the Watford U3A Creative Writing group in the 1990s and 2000s, and almost all of these pieces by my mother (Kathleen Edwards née Brockbank 1925-2007) were written during that period. Where they relate to specific memories, I have attempted to order them chronologically, and the others according to their estimated date of writing. The photographs and links are my additions.
One two, three four, five six, seven eight, nine ten. He sat on the chair, looking lonely, unhappy One two, three four, five six, seven eight, nine ten. I clambered beside him, to comfort him counting One two, three four, five six, seven eight, nine ten.
At home on the bookcase I have a small statue and each time I see it I’m back home beside him Happily counting while mother stands by. Suddenly sensing that now its not playtime I slip off his lap and floorbound sit watching while mother unhappy, her face clouded, weary, says softly, “It's alright Jack. Don't worry. Go swiftly and safely. I know you'll do well".
Many years later, the rest of the story, familiar to many but still hard to tell. That morning he left us to stand in a work pound with a few dozen others as desperate as he. All hoping to be the one that was chosen to work for one day maybe two even three He was counting because of an old superstition Good luck would attend him by counting to ten.
That day was a good one, he came home delighted He'd called at the fish shop to bring home our tea. We had it with chips and some new bread and butter It tasted so good I remember it still.
Depression recession, laid off, redundant. Words often spoken by bland T.V. announcers In how many places are such scenes re-enacted? Have they all happy endings as happy as ours? All we can do is to try to make certain that no-one feels lonely or useless or hungry as to how we can do this well thats a big question If you know the answer please telephone me!
Old age sharpens the memory of the past, so it has been said. Perhaps this is why some events and some people stay in the mind. Uncle Tom is as sharply defined as if we were in the same room, and yet it is nearly fifty years since I last saw him.
He lived in North Wales, across the road from the Aqueduct, a renowned local landmark. We lived about forty miles away, a mere nothing these days, but then the journey involved a ninety minute train journey on a slow, stop-at every-station train. We lived in a three-bedroomed house and there were four of us, my mother and father, my brother and myself. I don’t think he ever slept at our house, but I can clearly see him sitting in a rocking chair, feet stretched out towards the open fire, pipe in mouth (it was never alight and I doubt if it had any tobacco in it), elbows touching the arm of the chair, hands waving enthusiastically as he listened to his favourite operatic arias, often joining in, inventing his own librettos as he sang. It was my job to wind the gramophone if it began to flag. Uncle Tom did not need winding up. He would continue to hum until my efforts were rewarded and: “Mimi was once more in her garret sewing until the frost was over”, hitting the notes correctly. In retrospect it was Uncle Tom that fashioned my love of opera which has since informed my life.
He was a large man with a strong square-jawed face, gentle eyes and eloquent expressive hands. He hated violence of any kind, certain that the Great War, his war (he had fought with my father at Gallipoli) was a senseless criminal waste of lives which should never be repeated.
During the second world war I was evacuated to Wales and spent some time living with Uncle Tom’s brother and wife who lived nearby. We would meet over tea in his tiny kitchen. His wife Dora presided over the teapot. She had a large unfriendly dog who used to sit on a chair by the tea table, a napkin around his neck, lapping his tea from a china saucer. Uncle Tom was reluctant to allow me to share the table with the dog so the dog would be banished to lie on the floor where he would growl angrily and nip any feet within range.
We would go for walks by the River Dee, which ran under the aqueduct, or by the canal which ran over it. He would tell me that some day there might be a fair world where everyone would have an equal crack of the whip. I wasn’t too sure what the phrase meant, but he explained “fair shares and opportunities for all”. He hoped I would live to see it. So do I, but I doubt it.
He was adopted by a large female cat which wandered starving into the house, but was quickly banished to the back yard by the large unfriendly dog. He fed the cat secretly, and found an old wooden box for it to lie in, well hidden between the wall of the yard and a tree. The cat repaid him by producing litters of kittens at regular intervals. Uncle Tom would be dispatched to “drown them in the Dee” He would obediently take them away, return home, try to light his tobacco-less pipe, and all would be well until the next time.
Some time later, during a family crisis, my brother and I had to go to the brickworks where he was employed. It was beginning to get dark and as we waited in the large factory we could see many pairs of curious eyes shining through the gloom. “What are those?” we asked. “Tom’s cats” was the reply, “He says they keep the mice down, but we all wish he would get their mother seen to”.
Uncle Tom died the day my first son was born. A man of passionate beliefs, sensitive, empathetic, I still miss him, and hope he found the “presence that disturbed him” that he spoke of, misquoting Wordsworth as we walked beside the river Dee.
It began in a lift, a very small lift, with just enough room to take a trolley, its occupant and me. It was the beginning of the most frightening moment of my life.
It had been a fairly routine day. It was 2 pm, nearly time to go off duty. The telephone rang; could we admit a little girl from casualty with more than 45% burns? She had been stretching up to reach a snapshot on a shelf near the fire when her clothing caught fire. I relayed the message to the ward sister. She took the phone from me. Her voice was curt and somewhat exasperated as she turned to me. “You’ll have to stay on late to take her to the theatre; I can’t spare anyone else.”
The lift was gloomy, dark and noisy. The little girl’s screams had been muted by morphia but she moaned quietly. I held her hand.
“Its all right, Mummy will be here soon. The doctor is going to make you better. You’ll go to sleep, and when you wake up Mummy will be there.”
“You promise, Mummy and Auntie Betty. They won’t be cross will they?”
“I promise. No, they won’t be cross.”
They’d better not be cross, I thought to myself. How could they be so careless? What was a six year old doing alone in the house?
“Can I have Jane? I want Jane”
“Soon. Very soon.”
“I can’t go to sleep without Jane”.
“I’ll find her for you if I can. If I can’t, I know she will be here when you wake up.”
Who or what was Jane? A doll or a teddy? Perhaps I could call my friend on the children’s ward. She might be able to find a discarded toy that would help if mummy and Aunty Betty were too distraught to bring it with them.
When we reached the theatre she refused to let go of my hand until the anaesthetic took effect. The surgeon pulled back the sheet. “This won’t take long. She’s far too shocked to take a prolonged anaesthetic. Wait there nurse, we will need you soon to take her back.”
Theatre Sister nodded reassuringly. “It will be good for her to have a familiar face with her when she wakes up.” Hospital gossip had told me that this particular theatre sister terrified all who came into contact with her including renowned surgeons. Not so this day though.
I must remember to ask her mother to bring Jane. I’ll ask casualty to ring up. I tried to think who was on duty in casualty. Was it someone I knew? My train of thought was interrupted,
“Its all right, nurse. You can go now”
“No I can’t go, I have to wait…”. My voice trailed away. The trolley was pushed past me, and I saw that Jane would not be needed.
The silence was absolute. Everyone seemed to be in suspended animation. Even now, 45 years later, I can describe the theatre ante-room in minute detail. The small figure was lifeless. Until that moment I had not realised what death meant. Now I knew, and I found it terrifying. It was the absence of life. I knew now why people believed in the soul. The child on the trolley had retained nothing of the little girl I had taken up in the lift. Something had gone, but where? Not to an all loving all caring God. Where was he when those little arms stretched up too far?
“I’ll take her down.” Nobody stopped me. Back to the lift, darker and colder. I held the hand again. But it wasn’t her hand. She wasn’t there.
Back in the ward in the side room reserved for visitors I saw two women, one carrying a small battered Teddy – Jane? The sun shone brightly lighting up every corner of the room. Why then did it feel so cold? They were silent. Staring into a blackness only they could see.
I like to think that the little girl found Jane.
The Way We Were
Matron sat bolt upright behind a huge desk. I stood in front; I could not do otherwise – there was no other furniture in the room. “Is your family part of the Brocklebank Shipping Line?” she asked, but did not wait for an answer.
I answered questions on schooling, yes, I had matriculated. No, I had not completed my training at a local children’s hospital. “Why not?” I couldn’t tell her that I had left because one of the children had died. Sick adults die as well; if I wanted to be a nurse I would have to get used to it. So I lied.
“I left because I felt that I would get a better training here”.
“Why do you want to be a nurse?”
“I always thought I would like to be a doctor, but I think women are more useful as nurses; they are better at caring”.
I knew it was rubbish; I was, and still am ashamed. But she looked pleased. I was accepted, possibly because she thought there was an outside chance that I was connected to the Brocklebank Shipping Line.
Breakfast was at 7am. It was consumed at great haste. We were always anxious to know if authority had decided in the night that we would be needed on another ward.
Night Sister closed the meal by rapidly intoning grace, and where we to go. We had learned to accept our fate without a change of expression. We received a full report on our arrival on the ward. Sleeves rolled down, wrists trim in starched cuffs, hands clasped dutifully behind our backs; then to work!
The junior student nurses – or “pro’s” as we were called – were banished to the sluice room, scrubbing everything in sight so that when the Assistant Matron did her rounds she found “everything exactly as you would like to find it, Nurse”.
There was a mid-morning break. Half an hour maximum, often only ten minutes. Tidy your bedroom, change apron, grab a snack.
Make beds. We did this at a tremendous rate, and we enjoyed it. It was making people comfortable, and gossiping time. The patients would tell us their worries, and we would tell them ours.
Ward rounds followed. God-like consultants walked from bed to bed, trailing an army of silent acolytes in strict ranking order.
Professor C, the Consultant Physician, was short in stature, incisive and brilliant. It was said he had the Chinese ability to diagnose merely by taking a pulse. His bedside lectures were enthralling, but I always found myself hoping the patients didn’t understand all he was saying, although we did use jargon intended to mask reality. For instance, tuberculosis was described as pthisis, or acid-fast bacillus – anything but TB, which the patient would readily interpret as what in those days was a death sentence for him and probably for some of his family as well. Perhaps the Consultant occasionally made mistakes, but we were not aware of them. If any of us were taken ill, he is the doctor we would choose to treat us.
The Consultant Surgeon (always known as “Mr.R”) was noted for immediate decisions and radical surgery. He was handsome, and he knew it. Mopping his brow in the theatre made most of us go weak at the knees. His smile alone was said to cost his private patients fifty guineas. He operated fast, and most of his patients recovered. Everyone adored him.
After the consultants came first, the Registrar, slightly more approachable than the Consultant. One I remember in particular had the word “rat” as part of his name, and was called so by the nurses on account of his amorous propensities; we all knew it, so few were deceived by his charm.
And after the Registrar came the Housemen, still superior to the nurses, but easy to talk to given the right circumstances. We would exchange advice on how to cope with demanding seniors or difficult patients. The Housemen were immature, inexperienced and weary. We had much in common.
During the day, Matron would do a ward round. She was 4 ft 10, and yet made a rule banning any trainee probationer under 5 ft 3. She wore a large starched hat rumoured to be a foot high, though no-one ever got near enough to her to check if this was true. We were all terrified of her, from the most senior consultants downwards. Before the war she ordered all her ward sisters to do the patriotic thing and join the PMRAF nursing service reserve, but in 1939, as soon as they were likely to be called up, she ordered all of them to resign – – she didn’t want to lose any of her staff!
She would sometimes refuse to enter a ward for a round, conducted with military precision, because as she glanced through the doors she had seen a bed castor that was not straight, or one of the embossed designs on the white counterpanes was upside down. When she retired, a select few of her ward sisters were commanded to take tea with her; they were served tea and biscuits in order of seniority.
Was she liked? No. Was she respected? Most certainly. I, for one, am grateful to have known her.
Dinner-time. Hand out those plates even if they are too hot to handle; most of us developed asbestos fingers.
Afternoon visiting. Two only to a bed. More bedpans, more bedmaking. Cuffs off when working, cuffs on when speaking to anyone above the rank of Charge Nurse.
Off duty at last, at six, six-thirty, or sometimes seven. Try to collapse into bed.
“Brocky, come on, you can’t go to sleep yet, come out with us for a meal”.
“Can’t, sorry, no money”.
“Jones has got a Welsh parcel”. That’s a different matter; all that Welsh butter oozing round the crusts of Bara brith.
10pm. Lights out.
10.05pm. Torches on. Whispered tales of horrors past and horrors yet to come.
11pm. Creep warily back to own room. To bed at last.
Coming of Age
Casualty was very busy that night. We didn’t know why, but then we never did. Sometimes a ship would dock and the city would fill up with drunken sailors; that would make us busy. On Orangemen’s day we would be deluged with fighting Irishmen needing stitching and separating. Tonight was neither. Night Sister promised to send us down some extra staff, but so far hadn’t been able to do so.
I had just finished dressing a third degree burn on a child’s hand, and called in the next patient, when four policemen rushed in wheeling a lady who was screaming. She was obviously in great distress. The policemen heaved her on to the bed turned to me and shouted: “She’s all yours”, and disappeared. The casualty officer was nowhere to be seen – probably in the next room.
I looked at the lady. She was very young, about twenty maybe. She lay on her back, knees bent, screaming and pushing. She was giving birth. I knew nothing about childbirth. I had only just emerged from the age of innocence in which babies where flown in by a stork. In those days it was not the source of entertainment that it is considered to be now.
I could see the head emerging. I held it because it seemed the right thing to do. She was pushing and screaming as I shouted “Help”. By the time help arrived, in the person of the extremely efficient but terrifying night sister, I was supporting a very slippery baby boy still attached to the umbilical cord. Sister took over.
“You have a beautiful little boy”, I told the exhausted mum. She burst into tears.
“Don’t tell my mother, please, please.”
“It’s all right, don’t worry”, I tried to reassure her. Night Sister turned to me:
“Well done, nurse”, she said – the only time I had ever heard her praise anyone. “Go and get a cup of tea, you deserve it.”
On my way to obey her command, a very tired Casualty Officer grabbed my arm.
“Will you tell that good lady that her daughter has just given birth. She insists that her daughter has never known any men. I have told her that as far as I know there has only ever been one virgin birth, but her daughter may well be the second.”
Finally off duty, I rushed to see my friends to regale them of the night’s experience. When I opened the door of my room all of my friends were already there singing “Happy Birthday”. Believe it or not I had entirely forgotten that to-day I was twenty-one. I had come of age.
(Kath imagines a day in 1957 from her mother Sallie’s perspective)
It was a twenty minute bus ride from my house to my daughter’s, so I had plenty of time to think on the way there. Was it time to show her Philip’s letter? Was it necessary, even? The answer to the last question was easy – of course it wasn’t necessary. So why was I worrying about it at all? I couldn’t help it. The letter had lain at the back of a drawer and its contents had intruded into my thoughts for six years. The only way to silence its presence was to tell Kath. She wouldn’t mind. She would laugh. Yes, I will tell her. Today.
Kath met me at the bus stop with my 4 year old grandson Robin. He ran towards me.
“Nana. Nana, have you brought me my forprise?”.
“Robin!”, Kath shouted. “I told you not to do that. I hope you haven’t, Mum. He has a house full of toys.”
I picked Robin up and hugged him. “Wait until we get home dear. I know you will like it.”
Ten minutes later as Robin played happily with his forprise, a toy car, I opened my handbag and showed Kath the letter I had received from my son Philip.
It was written when he was out in Burma with the RAF, and began: “I have met the man that Kath will fall in love with” – the man in fact that she was now married to. Kath did as I had predicted: she burst out laughing.
“You did well not to tell me, Mum. You knew how I might react: Philip dictating my future!!! I am as strong willed as you are. How would you have felt if your brother had decided who you should marry?”
I smiled but said nothing. In an instant I was back in a little cottage by the side of the River Dee in North Wales. I was packing a small bag (I had very few possessions). I was in a hurry. I had to be out of there before David returned. I wrote a note, very short: “I’m sorry. Goodbye.” That was all. The villagers would tell him the rest.
Soon I was crossing the fields to my brother’s house. To where Jack, who had fought in Gallipolli with my brother, was waiting for me. I was running away from my husband, my sister, my friends, my life. I had to be with Jack. I didn’t care how scandalised the village would be. I didn’t know how or where we would live. I only knew that we had to be together. We still are. Some day I might tell Kath the full story – but not yet.
We had to move down South, far away from the sea. The sea? Well, it was the estuary of the river Dee. Hoylake, our nearest beach, was not beautiful. It was almost sand-free, and the sea was often too dangerous to swim in, but we loved it. We could also walk to Thurstaston Hill, where Turner is reputed to have painted some of his sunsets. My parents lived just a bus ride away, and all our friends were nearby. We knew we would hate to move, but move we must; there was no alternative.
So we put the house on the market. Potential buyers and others came round – it was difficult to tell which was which. After a while we were able to differentiate between them: the potential buyer was often fairly brusque and asked searching questions about plumbing, heating bills, and whether the field at the bottom of the garden was likely to be built on. The others, the merely curious, were talkative, flattering about the decor and furnishings etc.
One potential buyer indicated a bookshelf fitted into a corner. “Is that a fixture?” he asked, “we could use the space”. “Yes” I answered tartly. It hadn’t occurred to me that anyone could manage without the bookshelf that my father had painstakingly built into the corner. It is possible that some potential buyers were put off because I didn’t really want to sell our first house, our honeymoon house, the house where my children were nearly born before I was rushed off to hospital with a police escort.
In the end, the house wasn’t sold until we left it entirely to the estate agents. When it was sold, our semi-detached house, I told our elder son, then aged four, that we were moving house, he exclaimed: “How can we move house when they’re joined to each nuvver?”. I would dearly have liked to have literally moved the house, if only to keep my father’s bookcase and the Claygate fireplace that we received as a wedding present.
As for being near the sea? I fear there will need to be an alarming degree of global warming before we could sun ourselves on the beach at Abbots Langley.
The Pool Builder
The bricks had arrived at 6 pm. It was light enough to make a start but he was a quiet man and when the family insisted that it was time for tea and TV he sat in his favourite chair and planned the next day’s programme. Tom chased Jerry through walls and halls but Jack was mentally counting bricks. (Had he ordered enough?) Flipper’s diving and writhing made him concentrate on the cement needed to line the hole. Was it deep enough? It would have to be at least 6ft at one end. He was momentarily diverted from his planning when he news showed marchers in Hyde Park bearing banners “Ban the Bomb”. What use to ban it? Someone would use it sooner or later. Back to the mental drawing board.
The next day was cloudy, cold and miserable. No matter. At 8 30 am he was out by the holes edge lining up the bricks. He picked up each one, feeling its weight and examining it for cracks. One or two he discarded “More like Sally’s malt loaves than bricks” he smiled to himself, and wondered if the comparison had more to do with the delectable smells wafting through the kitchen window than the shape of the bricks. He began to build the wall, plastering the mortar between each brick with great precision. Not too little, the wall had to be strong – not too much the wall must be neat.
By lunch time he had built up one side. He checked it and it was good. His lunch was hurried. No urge to eat. He had to get on. It took him a week to finish the wall and then he had to wait an impatient two days for the concrete mixer to arrive to turn the dark brown stony hole into a neat rectangular grey shape.
The pool liner arrived, and was duly fitted. He watched others stretching it carefully so that it fitted perfectly and then began to lay the paving. He worked methodically and quietly. He was probably the only carpenter who seemed to be able to hammer in a nail with scarcely a sound. It was not surprising then that the stones were levelled silently or so it seemed to Sallie who dozed on a garden seat near where he worked.
Occasionally he consulted the plan. His plan drawn with a draughtsman’s skill with a few artistic embellishments at the side. The family had teased him when they realised that he had sketched in his two grandsons poised on the edge about to dive in. He smiled and continued. He didn’t tell them that it was only the thought of their pleasure that kept him going. It must be finished when they started the school holidays, he told his aching back as he straightened up. One more week and it would be completed. It was. It is there still. 35 years later. The things that Jack built were built to last.
The Rocking Chair
In the bedroom crammed next to a computer and a wardrobe we have a rocking chair. As heave it out to hoover behind I sometimes think it’s time it was pensioned off. It never will be. Why? I’ll tell you…
Perhaps I should try to describe it first. It’s covered in green velvet, I think. A sort of drab indeterminate green, very fashionable at the time. My mother and I bought it. Its has worn wooden arms which are discoloured with age which have been unsuccessfully varnished and shine where they shouldn’t. So does the velvet, or maybe it’s called dralon, I can’t remember. It’s very comfortable though. It has a tendency to rock a bit too far back, hitting the wall which is all too close behind it, and shooting it’s occupant’s legs high in the air. Most of our guests were wary of it which is one of the reasons it has been relegated to the bedroom. I love it. Every time I sit in it I am Sallie, my mother. All her life or at least all that part of her life that I shared, she had a rocking chair. We chose this one together…
I can still see her rocking, quietly reading. It was usually George Eliot. A very well known and much loved writer. She could quote much of that good lady’s philosophising thoughts…however, back to the rocking chair. There isn’t much more to say about it. I have thought of having it recovered, and even got as far as the inside of a shop specialising in such work, but something stopped me. Covered in some bright new material with the wood french polished, it would lose its magic, not just for me but for my sons who have already told me, half jokingly, that they intend to quarrel about who will inherit it. They too can see their Nana, Sallie, my mother.
Aelwyn writes: When Kath referred to the arms of the chair as being “unsuccessfully varnished”, she was kind enough not to name the expert who succeeded in varnishing the arms unsuccessfully.
I, too had a special relationship with Sallie, my mother-in-law, and she was greatly missed. What Kath has also not mentioned is that, one day while she and I were out working, Sallie’s heart finally gave out on her while she was sitting in her favourite rocking chair.
Backward, turn backward, O Time, in your flight
“Come for a walk.”
“Not now. I’m reading.”
“Shall I make a cake?”
“No need, I’ve made one.”
“But I wanted to.”
“Lets have a chat.”
“Not now no time we’re watching.”
Why didn’t I go walking, enjoy her baking – it was better than mine – chat instead of watching tripe on TV. Now there’s no time left. It’s too late.
If only time moved backwards. Then we could recreate the past. Instead she joins me whenever I walk on sand dunes, and we talk about her grandchildren and their children. Do you think she can hear me? Tell me she can.
To you, my darling Ael
What are we doing, you and I, Standing quietly in the Square? Why are we there? Tired, cold, old, Together in love, Clutching our hands - Saving our land?
I see you standing, Pale, silent, Thinking perhaps of those now still, And yet again the cry is "Kill!".
R and F and R and L, R and D and R and A, Our future, The sun, the earth, the sea, the sky, Our world might die.
That's why we're there, In Trafalgar Square.
Through a winter window
The trees are white with frost leafless branches stroking the icy air The birds move fast, chattering with the cold? The patio pots, cracked, spill grey soil on white turf Forlornly empty, cold and bare. table and chair Did we ever picnic there? Yet through my winter window I can see A Christmas tree - thereby hangs a tale
We planted it many years ago, after Christmas. It had served us well. Decorated with baubles and surrounded by presents, we felt that it deserved to prosper. It certainly did. It grew so much the first year that even if we had had the heart to uproot it, it would not have fitted into the house. We bought a new artificial one. At least it was man made. not a living reproach mutely asking, “Why am I here when I ought to be outside?”
Life continued. The family grew, loved, left home, bought houses. We grew older. My brother died. It was not unexpected, but cut short a brilliant academic career. Our sons and their partners came to the funeral. We were all in that state of wordless misery invoked by such occasions. Somehow it is possible to keep up a mindless flow of socialising chatter with relations and friends while eating the funereal food. There are even flashes of light in the gloom as you see familiar faces and recall old times. Afterwards, back home once more, the silent sadness returns.
“Anyone for tea?”
“If you like”, uncaring.
“Mum, we have something to tell you.”
“I am pregnant.” The lilting Scottish voice of our daughter-in law. A feeling of such joy surged inside. We had wondered. We had hoped. We knew that there might be difficulties. We did not dare to ask.
I looked out of the window and saw our Christmas tree and made a silent vow. If all went well we would cover the tree with lights and give presents to every child staying in the court every Christmas. That was 14 years and three more grandchildren ago.
The tree is still there. The top blew off in a storm but it recovered. If you visit us at Christmas be sure to bring your grandchildren to see the lights.
Eight years old But I could see My Life
Grace and glamour Early life's joys I knew
Crooked and limping Forgetful and Stupid Old age
The Sun drops low That trodden road Twists out of sight
The Future Mercifully hidden Don't look dream Live only for the day
I must be calm though this little girl is dying. Her eyes are beseeching, asking for help. Talk to her, play with her, comfort her, help her. Show no emotion but sympathy, no crying.
The colour is black. It's dark and despairing, It's shape a relentless hard-balled fist. “Here's your teddy. I've dressed him - See his lovely red jersey And hat at an angle”. She's smiling, she hugs him. For that moment she's happy.
The colour is red now, with streaks of bright sunlight. The fist has now opened, It's soft and appealing. Hold her hand now, and whisper: “It's all right, I'm with you. Go to sleep. I will stay here, I’ll stay till the morning”. Her eyes close. For ever?
The black fist's returning. Get up, you're off duty - pretend you don't care.
Age cannot wither
We have a plant that refuses to die. We have moved it into dark corners, (Surely plants need light?) But it doesn't die. It thrives, it grows, It refuses to flower. Is it too old? In despair, we move it To the top of the freezer; It shudders in time to the engine. It grows even bigger. We will have to move house To give it more space. We can't put it out in the cold, Because it's showing us How to grow old, Gracefully.
If I had a pound for every time someone asked me how this cartoon series got started, I’d have, um, about six pounds. Readers of this blog, and anyone who has met me, will know that I’m passionate about music. And that I have a strange sense of humour. My brain frequently puts the two together: it’s wired to constantly search for music related jokes.
For example, I saw a house called Mayfield yesterday, and was immediately seized by the desire to put a sign outside the house on the left saying Curtis. Another called The Hollies? Someone should buy the house next door and call it Herman’s Hermits. What car did Gerry Marsden drive? An Audi Adooit. And I have a plan one day to move to the nearby village of Seer Green, just so I can callmy house Skyer Blue and have the best address in England, maybe plonk a big yellow submarine in the front garden to clarify. And so on.
I can’t switch these thoughts off, and some time about 2007, a cartoon gag idea came into my head which refused to go away:
A very young Elton John is in the JobCentre, looking at job offers. Among the cards offering jobs as warehousemen and sales assistants, we can make out one saying “Wanted: sculptor” and another saying “Can you make up potions?”. Suggested caption: “Key moments in music history”.
I didn’t try to draw it up as I’m hopeless at art. I just wrote the idea on a small piece of paper and left it in a box on my desk, and there it stayed while I got on with my busy life. After four years I had a second idea (they were coming thick and fast), this time not music related:
A boffin-looking (sic) man is in a supermarket scratching his head, in front of a display of cat food.
Caption: Schrödinger in the supermarket.
Now I had two gags, surely I was virtually a professional writer? I wondered whether there were any cartoonists who would consider other people’s ideas – I like to try these things – and found a Q&A forum on the Cartoonists’ Club of Great Britain’s website. In 2011 I proudly posted my gags, asking whether any cartoonists fancied drawing them up, and waited for the stampede.
There was no stampede, but a few politely encouraging responses – it’s a supportive community. Then I had a response from a cartoonist called Wilbur Dawbarn, saying he’d like to draw up the Schrödinger gag. I said yes please! and we agreed terms. He very sensibly suggested that I should remove the idea from my post on the forum, which I did, and the Elton gag was left all alone there – and eleven years later, it’s still standing:
Very soon Will (as Wilbur called himself in normal life) had drawn up the gag. As any cartoonist knows, there’s a big difference between drawing a cartoon and getting it published, and I wasn’t counting any chickens, but when he sent it through I was already thrilled to see my idea rendered by a professional:
And I was even more thrilled when he told me the cartoon had been accepted by Prospect, a British current affairs and general interest magazine. It was published in the July 2011 edition, and of course I bought a copy, spending a fair percentage of my writer’s fee.
Will encouraged me to send him more ideas, and I was grateful for that: not many cartoonists seemed to be open to collaboration. I had nothing else in the locker at the time. But now I had made the contact, I returned to my Elton John idea. Perhaps I could get a series of music gags going?
I realised that I’d never found it difficult to think up the jokes – what I had failed to do was capture them. So I made a point of scribbling them down when I thought of them, and even sat and brainstormed for the odd hour, focusing on quirky performers and songs with lyrics which could be portrayed from an amusing, unexpected angle. I found a moderate intake of alcohol aided this process, although I followed the writer’s maxim “write drunk, edit sober”. The floodgates opened and the ideas came in rapidly. Before long I had about thirty gag ideas, which I tidied up and sent to Will.
Before long he emailed back saying that he thought the idea could work: he would like to draw up five of the gags and try to get a magazine interested in the series. Some of the ideas he found too cryptic or too obscure – reflecting the strange workings of my mind, and my obsessive pop music knowledge respectively – or simply not funny, but he said he really loved a few of them. So after some to-and-fro we settled on the series title Forgotten Moments in Music History, and Will got to work drawing them up. I was the Gilbert, if you will, to his Sullivan. Soon I was thrilled to get his brilliant artwork through – featuring my scruffy little signature:
The days when tabloid newspapers published a whole page of cartoons every day were long gone: there were few potential buyers. Will tried some music magazines without success, and then pitched to the fortnightly satirical magazine Private Eye, who were, and remain, by far Britain’s biggest buyer of cartoons.
After a while, he had a reply saying they were considering it. I say “they” – in fact all main decisions at the Eye are made by the editor Ian Hislop. (At the time of writing he has been editor for 35 years, having done the job since he was 26.). Then it all went quiet for a few months, and we started to assume that it had been, well, forgotten.
But eventually the Eye told us they were going to give the series a trial run, and they published the first in the series in issue no. 1318, 13-26 July 2012:
I was so happy. I could come up with all the daft music jokes I liked, and they would be seen by a readership of over 200,000. And even get paid for them. And if Debbie suggested that I should stop making stupid jokes in conversation, I could point out how lucky – privileged – she was to hear them for free, when Britain’s leading (well, only) satirical magazine was happy to pay me for them. This was so much more exciting than the day job. But I started feeling pressure – they had accepted five cartoons, but wouldn’t print the Christmas themed one until December. I would need to come up with more ideas quickly, and the other 25 of my initial pitch to Will had been ruled out.
In the event, I had more time than I expected: early publication was erratic. Some issues carried our series, some didn’t. When it did appear, it kept moving around the magazine. We were slightly discouraged, but I pointed out to Will – rather grandly – that the BBC had moved Monty Python’s Flying Circus around the schedule when it first aired.
Eventually the series found a regular (and, I thought, prestigious) spot on the letters page, and my gag ideas flowed, if not freely, at least adequately to keep it ticking over. From each batch of eight or so, Will knocked back about a third of my gags as either too obscure, too cryptic or just not funny – although he was always fair, and would try one he wasn’t keen on if I really rooted for it. Then he would submit a list of six, of which the Eye would typically go for two or three. This meant typically only about one gag in four made it from conception to publication, so roughly two gag ideas a week were needed to keep the series in play.
From the first, the geeky subject matter attracted contributions to Pedantry Corner, perhaps encouraged by the proximity of the two features. Some were fair enough: the departure board for the midnight train to Tbilisi should indeed have shown 00:00, not 12:00. And Paul McCartney was wrongly shown holding the gun right-handed. (OK, it turns out he’s left-handed – who knew?). Some of it we batted away: in the books and on the TV he’s Great Uncle Bulgaria, but in The Wombling Song he’s plain Uncle Bulgaria.
But the most irritating strand of pedantry insisted on identifying the song with the writer rather than the singer. Should we make the joke about Bernie Taupin instead of Elton John, because he wrote the lyrics? I’m sure Will could draw an excellent likeness of Bernie, but how many readers would recognise it? I tried to shrug off the ill-informed pedantry – it at least showed engagement and raised the profile of our series – but I’m so proud of my nerdy pop knowledge that I found it difficult not to rise to the bait.
There was sometimes creative tension between Will and me about my gags. I tended to embrace the obscure and the cryptic. I was in search of the perfect gag: I would be happy to have just one reader understood it, if they thought it was the funniest thing they’d ever seen. Will was obliged to be more practical: he preferred gags based on song titles, where no knowledge of the lyric was required. And he knew that we had to get it past Ian Hislop.
Ian Hislop is famously not “down with the kids” and he makes no effort to be. I stalked his Desert Island Discs choices from 1994 for some pointers as to what might be well received. I was unable to come up with any rib-ticklers based on Handel’s Zadok the Priest or Monteverdi’s Exulta, filia Sion, although I did manage a Madness joke. Fortunately for us, according to Will’s insider at the Eye, Hislop recognised his cultural blind spot and accepted help from colleagues in choosing between our ideas.
Many of the cartoons were as much puzzle as joke – I have been asked whether we publish the solutions anywhere. With most batches of gags I sent to Will, he would reply seeking explanations of one or two. Usually my replies weren’t enough to save them: he rightly reasoned that if he didn’t get them, nor would the readers. It might be possible to Google the ‘solution’, but no reader wants to work that hard. Will did get this one through, though, after a little nudge – and it is one of my favourites:
As the series approached its first Christmas, once the Eye had run the Roy Wood Christmas gag, Ian Hislop requested another festive themed cartoon. Maybe it’s the Scrooge in me, but I always had trouble thinking of decent Christmas jokes. Luckily Will rode to the rescue with one of his own. I did, however, get to write one of the Private Eye Christmas cards one year:
Initially Will specialised in Christmas gags, but over time he started contributing more of his own ideas. I was rather protective at first, but he is a top cartoonist who regularly comes up with extremely funny jokes – why would he not also come up with first rate music gags? And of course I needed his help to keep the series going – it was becoming a struggle to come up with enough ideas to satisfy the Eye. This is my all-time favourite of Will’s:
There are two ways to tell whose it is. Mine tend to be more oblique, and cryptic than Will’s, sometimes with a reference to the lyrics, not just the title. More obviously, mine carry the “Rik” scribble. In the later years of the series, Will and I were contributing ideas roughly equally.
As I didn’t have any direct contact with the Eye, I didn’t get to go to their occasional cartoonists’ get-togethers, although I did meet Ian Hislop once, at a book launch in December 2012 – even if I had to pay to do so. I attended the launch of Private Eye: A Cartoon History at the Olivier Theatre, no less, in September 2013. After paying my £25 I joined the queue to get the book signed, and when I reached the desk, introduced myself to Ian as the writer of Forgotten Moments. He stood up, shook my hand and said how much he liked the series: earlier that day he had chosen the next three ideas, and he mentioned two of them, confirming to me that he was personally involved in the choice. I mentioned it could be hard work coming up with acceptable ideas. “Well, there’s enough” he replied.
I had other plans for the franchise. Knowing how important pop music is to the boomer generation, I felt it would make a good set of greetings cards, so I touted the idea around a number of companies. Eventually, one called Peartree Heybridge went for it, and published a range of eighteen cards from the series. Sportingly, Ian Hislop raised no objection, provided Private Eye was credited on the back.
Will and I attended the launch at the Progressive Greetings Live trade fair in May 2014. At the Peartree Heybridge stand, our dreams of retiring on the proceeds were already starting to look fragile: there was a buzz around a few of the stands, but not, sadly, at this one. Sales indeed proved very modest: they ran it for a couple of years before pulling the plug. One card from the series outsold the rest by some way: our dark take on Space Oddity.
More ambitiously, I even conceived the idea of a jukebox musical, loosely based on the Forgotten Moments theme. It starts off with the ghosts of Buddy Holly, Jimi Hendrix and a youthful Elvis Presley meeting up by the Dakota building in New York on 8 December 1980, waiting to greet John Lennon. They then form a kind of superhero zombie band who go round having crazy adventures and righting wrongs in chaotic fashion. That’s as far as it got. Just as well probably, I don’t think any producer could have afforded the music rights.
I sometimes sent Will non-music ideas, but the economics of one-off cartoons can be brutal. An artist expends time, skill and effort drawing up ideas to have the great majority knocked back, and revenue sharing with a writer then makes the economics virtually unworkable. The advantage of a series like Forgotten Moments for Will was that the Eye would accept or reject ideas on the basis of a verbal summary, so he knew before starting work on them that he would get paid for it. But he did draw up a few of my non-music ideas, and one was accepted by the Eye:
Towards the end of 2020 (and after quite a few lockdown gags) we got the news we had been fearing: after a run of eight and a half years, and 216 cartoons, Will received the message “Ian thinks this has run its course.” The final cartoon in the series appeared at the end of the year. The last non-Christmas joke was quite apt:
After 35 years in the job, Hislop probably knows what he’s doing. I had felt that the series was becoming a little stale – certainly, my favourite gags tend to come from earlier in the series. Happily, Will was invited to pitch a new series, and his Eco Chamber now dispenses laughs and dire warnings from the same Eye letters page.
Never one to leave a dead horse unflogged, I have started my own Forgotten Moments greetings card shop on Etsy. Sales have once again been modest, but it’s satisfying to run it (except when a card is struck out for image rights infringement – I can’t say which it was for legal confidentiality reasons, but I did find it rather ironic) (oh, and I don’t think I’ll be exploring Wimbledon Common after dark) and I do get a little thrill every time my phone goes ka-ching to announce a sale. The best sellers in the range of eighteen are not only both Bowie gags – they are both based on the same actual song. That man’s fans are so devoted. Neil and Buzz is one of them, of course. This is the other:
But what, you ask, happened to the joke that started it all, Elton John at the JobCentre? It was rejected from the first batch, but I persisted. After a tweak, we sneaked in as fm41:
At university I never missed a chance to see the V.I.P.s, the home-grown punk pop band managed by fellow Warwick student Clive Solomon. Their future seemed bright. Eventually their single The Quarter Moon reached 55 in 1980 – the only dent they made on the charts.
I went to see them playing the prestigious 100 Club in London, supporting a swingin’ soul band called Q-Tips. I concluded that Q-Tips were a great band, but that their singer was the weak link. Yes, the singer who went on to fame and fortune as Paul Young.
A few years on, I was absolutely certain that the wonderful Mint Juleps would be huge, but they never came closer to world domination than records which peaked at 62 and 58 in the British charts.
Are you seeing a pattern here? Maybe my musical tastes were a little bit too niche. It’s just as well I didn’t work in the business, because my track record at picking winners was hopeless. But perhaps that was about to change.
Early in 1986 my go-to live music was the many retro bands who played fifties and sixties R&B, country music, rock’n’roll and soul in pub venues around Camden like the Dublin Castle – where Madness (previously) and Amy Winehouse (later) made their names. One night I was there breathing the cigarette smoke and enjoying the Cajun R&B of the Balham Alligators, when during their break a couple of young guys came on stage, introduced as the Panic Brothers.
They were a revelation. Their musical influences were pretty obvious – two guys playing acoustic guitars and singing close harmonies inevitably recalled the Everly Brothers – but also taking inspiration from Hank Williams and the roots of contemporary country music. They performed entertaining original songs with a large helping of shrewd observation, humour and sharp social comment – with an edge of left-wing protest, which informed rather than overwhelmed the music – at a time when most country music came from the opposite end of the political spectrum.
I was so impressed that I typed out a review and sent it in to London fanzine Capital M – and they printed it:
Reading this now, I wouldn’t change much, although I’m not sure why I suggested they should do covers when their original songs were so good.
I banged the drum for them one more time. After attending a gig on 21 September 1986 I sent the fanzine a second review. I justified my enthusiasm in the covering letter:
I’m sorry to bang on about the Panic Brothers again, but if you were at the Dublin Castle last night you would have known it was a very important gig. After all, it’s not so often that a pub-rock act breaks through nationally and I think it can’t be far away for these guys.
If the enclosed review looks like hype – I can only say it’s sincere, and that it takes a lot to impress this cynical old pub-rock veteran.
Panic on Parkway
City Limits be blowed, it was in Capital M back in April that you first read that the Panic Brothers would take the world by storm. To judge from their tumultuous reception at their return gig at the Dublin Castle, they’re over halfway there already.
A large and lively crowd was captivated by the Panic recipe of excellent singing and playing, witty original songs and waggish introductions. There were signs of an act about to break big; a fiercely partisan audience, calling for their favourites, and knowing the words by heart.
The essence of Panic appeal remains their songwriting ability. Like truly great pop, their songs combine economical lyrics with simple, memorable tunes. Some are already Panic classics – “Sober”, “Payoff” and “Bivouac”. “No News” is an indictment of the yellow press on a par with “Pills and Soap”. Best of all though, the new songs – they go on getting better. What a privilege, to attend the birth of these future classics: “Almost as Blue as Hank Williams”, “I Made a Mess of a Dirty Weekend” and the exquisite, wistful “My Friends Don’t Come Drinking Any More.” These won friends immediately, and all three were demanded as encores.
To judge from the rate of increase in Panic popularity, Reg and Richie will not be around the pub circuit for very long. Treat yourself now.
Waggish? Really young Rik? This piece was never published, but for a while they were on a promising trajectory. In 1987 they released In The Red, a “mini album” – a 12-inch vinyl disc containing ten songs which played at 45 rpm. To underline the joke, the first track, Bivouac starts with a glissando to mimic the sound of the record adjusting after mistakenly being started at 33 rpm – as it no doubt often was. They also had a video made for In Debt, but the single was never released.
My favourites were, and remain, the poignant My Friends Don’t Come Drinking Any More, the brilliantly funny I Made a Mess of a Dirty Weekend, (“With my British Rail Red Rover I’m a real Casanova”) another drinking song, I’ve Forgotten What it Was That I Was Drinking To Forget, a not-drinking song, I Feel So Sober I Could Cry, (“But I gave it up! I wonder why? Tonight I feel so sober I could cry”). And there’s Almost as Blue as Hank Williams (“On the bicycle of life I’ve got a spanner in my spokes” – surely up there with Hank’s own “I’m going down in it three times, but Lord I’m only coming up twice”) and No News (“Lying in the gutter press, watching the stars undress”). Their songs are funny or beautiful, or both, and unlike many comedy songs, the quality of the music repays repeated listening.
Over the next five years they were frequently on TV: among other appearances they sang Bivouac and My Sony Walkman Just Walked Out On Me on Channel 4’s Friday Night Live in 1988, and a snippet of them singing Almost as Blue as Hank Williams and commenting on the appeal of Country music in Britain was shown on NBC News. Three of their songs were used for a 1989 BBC Scotland Play On 1. They performed at the Edinburgh Festival, and at Glastonbury.
As you might have guessed, they never made it big. But they both launched successful solo careers. The stage banter was always a big part of their appeal, and for Richard the comedy outgrew the music, and he became a popular stand-up comic – once described as “Newcastle’s answer to Billy Connolly”, rubbing shoulders with the likes of Jack Dee and Jo Brand, and has often featured on the radio.
Meanwhile Reg has become an established act in the folk world. He specialises in telling local stories, sometimes commemorating tragedies. But my personal favourites are the more pop styled songs which could have been drawn from personal experience: Your Face Again, the achingly sad Good with his Hands, and the superbThe Goodbye Hat. The last of these shows that Reg took all of his lyrical bite into his solo career:
Now it doesn’t necessarily follow That she’s been going out with somebody else But it’s starting to look Like she’s found a new book While this one gathers dust on the shelf
Best of all is the marvellous Good Morning Mr. Colston which Reg recorded in 2022 marking the toppling of the slave trader’s statue in 2020: a song which pulls off the rare feat of combining a hard-hitting political and human message with a beautiful and memorable melody.
In the Red was at last released in CD format in 2015. Richard and Reg have got together for the occasional Panic Brothers reunion in recent years, and when they scheduled a gig at the Dublin Castle in 2017 I was there. I wasn’t disappointed: it was well attended, and the playing, singing and banter were as sharp as ever. They even gave me a shout-out and played my request. I thought I was a superfan, but I saw a fellow there of about my age singing the words to every number, who had brought along his young adult son and daughter. A true apostle. If the Spotify stats are any guide, Panic Brothers fans are now few in number. But we remember, and we are strong in faith.
You’ll be wondering, given my record of picking winners in the pop music world, who I’m tipping for stardom now. Well, this time, it’s a little closer to home: my daughter’s band, The People Versus. As I always loved music but had zero talent for it, Alice is livin’ the dream for me. I’m bound to get it right eventually, no?
I remember from my childhood a breakfast conversation with my dad. I liked my sums, and I said “I’ve been thinking, Dad, in the year 2000, I’ll be the same age as you are now.” He liked that – as an actuary, fond of number puzzles, he recognised a kindred spirit. He once thrilled Mum by pointing out the day when their combined ages added up to 100. So that would have been in April 1972. Similarly I can date my conversation with Dad. I turned 44 in 2000, and Dad turned 44 in 1963, so I would have been six or seven.
One of the most exciting things about being a parent – if you have the energy to appreciate it – is watching your child’s personality and sense of humour emerge and surprise you, first in physical play, then in language and dialogue, finally in jokes and banter. Naturally, every child seems like a genius to their doting parents, so these family tales should be read in that light.
Rachel was an early, prolific and witty talker, while from very young Alice had a gift for physical comedy. I thought of them as our Groucho and Harpo.
Rachel has forensic reasoning, which she has carried into her career. I can fairly accurately fix the date we became aware of it: about the time Dad and I watched Michael Owen score and David Beckham get sent off against Argentina, so late June 1998, when Rachel and Alice had just turned four and two.
We were on Mull, doing our traditional walk from Tobermory to the lighthouse. As a party of eleven, aged from two to seventy-eight, progress was slow. Rachel observed:
“Alice is yer slowest person that can walk.” Uncle Rob indulgently engaged:
“What, slower than a snail?”
“No, yer slowest person that can walk!”
“What, slower than a baby?”
“No, yer slowest person that can walk!” Then the killer blow.
“You should listen!”
Rachel’s diction was still imperfect, and walk came out as wart. The combination of childish speech and ruthless logic was devastating, and Rob, his benign avuncular offerings rudely rejected, muttered something about her future career as a lawyer.
A couple of years later, Part of Your World from The Little Mermaid came on the CD player in the car. The song reached the lines:
“Bet you on land they understand Bet they don’t reprimand their daughters”
“Oh yes they do!” piped up Rachel from the back.
Alice had, and has, a delightful infectious chuckle. On a walk by the Thames, she put some rubbish in a bin, and the lid bounced back unexpectedly. She recoiled in comically exaggerated horror, and repeated the scene three times, I burst into laughter. She was very young. It’s a big moment, the first time your child intentionally makes you laugh.
At the end of a long journey to the Yorkshire Dales, we were growing tired and impatient for the journey to be over, when Alice, about six, affected a convincing Chicago gangster accent, and greeted every church with “Look at da choich!” or “Da boys are hot on our tail Bugsy, we’re gonna hide in da choich.” Good times.
On another trip, Bowie’s song The Man Who Sold The World had just played on the mix tape. As we passed through a rural area where pungent muck had recently been spread, and the odour seeped into the car, the traditional question went up: “OK, who did that?” This time it was Alice’s voice singing from the back:
“Oh no, not me I never lost control”
It was all in the timing.
One generation after my dad heard me make that arithmetical observation, it was my turn to discover more of my child’s personality. The girls had seen an advert for Disney World on TV, and Alice excitedly proposed a family trip there. “We can have breakfast with Goofy!” Rachel – who I reckon was about eight – shot back “But we already get to have breakfast with Goofy two days a week!”
I was ten per cent deeply offended. But really, the speed, the engineering, the lethal concealed barb. That’s my girl.
In the 1980s, going to gigs was my default form of entertainment. Living in Kentish Town in north London, it was a short walk down to Camden, where I spent many happy nights in the Dublin Castle on Parkway, and other nearby venues.
But the Mint Juleps home patch was east London: they emerged from youth theatre at the Half Moon on the Mile End Road, where they had all worked as volunteers. So I don’t remember how I first found them – I don’t think it was round my way. But from the minute I saw and heard them, I was under their spell. Their personalities, their vivacity, their banter, but mostly their glorious voices and harmonies, were an irresistible wave of joy, “like a bolt of sunlight breaking through low hanging cloud” as one fan described it. Their gigs were simply the most enjoyable I’ve ever been to.
They were six girls: the four Charles sisters Debbie, Sandra, Lizzie and Marcia, and two of their school friends, Julie Isaac and Debbie Longworth. (“Four of us are sisters, but I bet you can’t tell which four.”) They had no musical training, and it seems they never set out to be stars: they started the journey to become professional singers when they agreed to a gig in a pub, after the owner had heard them singing at the Half Moon.
They sang unaccompanied, or a capella, and each took her turn in the spotlight, stepping across the stage to sing solo. They handled rhythm and blues, pop, soul, reggae and gospel from the fifties and sixties with complete assurance, style, and an infectious sense of fun.
Sandra would win a roar of appreciation for her astonishing extended “We-e-e-e-e-e-e-ll” at the beginning of Shout. Marcia’s resonant bass lines drove the songs along. And when super-cute, sweet-voiced Julie stepped out to sing One Bad Stud, every guy in the audience imagined she was singing just to him. Debbie Longworth and Lizzie were also great singers – Debbie playfully introduced herself as “the token white”. There were no weaknesses – every song was a delight, and you couldn’t keep the smile off your face.
For me the highlight came when Debbie C took a turn to sing gospel, with Jesus Gave Me Water – a number associated with Sam Cooke among others. Her vibrant, warm contralto, and especially her performance on this song was thrilling, and on the video there’s a lovely moment 56 seconds in when she shoots a look at the camera in annoyance after a slight fluff.
And it seemed to me, in my optimistic and naive twenties, to suggest – even in the midst of the Thatcher era – that we were on the dawn of an age where race would become irrelevant, where people would at last be judged on the “content of their character”, and this joyous music would lead the way. Perhaps it was the lager talking, but we seemed to be travelling so fast. How disappointing that thirty-five years later we are no closer to this destination. If I were black, disappointing wouldn’t cover it.
The group had a decent measure of success. They toured with Sister Sledge, Billy Bragg, Kool & the Gang, Lenny Henry, Shalamar, Fine Young Cannibals and provided backing vocals for Bob Geldof, the Belle Stars, Alison Moyet, Al Green, Gabriel and Dr. Feelgood. They worked with artists like Ladysmith Black Mambazo, and appeared in Spike Lee’s 1990 TV production, Do It Acapella.
They were signed by legendary new wave label Stiff Records, who implicitly acknowledged that they were at their best as a live act by recording them live at the Shaw Theatre in London for their 1985 debut album One Time. They broke into the lower end of the charts with a charming version of Neil Young’s Only Love Can Break Your Heart in 1986 and with Robert Palmer’s Every Kinda People in 1987. They provided the final release on Stiff Records before the label folded: the rap-styledGirl to the Power of 6, produced by the highly successful Trevor Horn – celebrating girl power nine years before the Spice Girls came on the scene.
But their single releases abandoned the joyful a capella style. Their production leant towards 1980s fashions, leaving behind the variety which had been the foundation of their shows. They wrote some good numbers – in particular Debbie Longworth’s Don’t Let Your Heart, which I thought of as their signature song – but their studio recordings weren’t distinctive enough to grab the imagination of the record-buying public.
Some of the records sounded like a natural solo number had been hastily rearranged into a group song, to give all the girls a role. The records never quite captured what made them so special live, and some group members sensed that. In a 2013 interview Debbie Charles recalled frustration at Trevor Horn’s approach to production: “We’ve got a sound already, why’s he trying to give us a new one?”
Arguably Stiff Records lacked confidence in the genre: although the Flying Pickets had shown a couple of years before that a capella groups could have big hits in the UK, they had quickly faded from the charts, being seen as a novelty act.
Listening to the vitality and sheer joy of their live performances decades on, it seems incomprehensible and plain wrong that they didn’t take the world by storm. It may be that the lack of a single focal point made the Mint Juleps difficult to promote, but for me that was one of the attractions – the girls clearly had a lot of fun together, and supported each other as a team. As their career progressed, Debbie Charles and Julie Isaac were increasingly assigned lead vocals, and who knows, perhaps they were offered solo contracts (update – see blog comment below, only from DEBBIE CHARLES herself, no less), but the group stayed together.
I should admit to a track record of championing acts which fail to hit the commercial heights their talent merits. I confidently backed The Panic Brothers (who?) for stardom. I saw a swingin’ soul band called Q-Tips, and concluded that they were a great band, but that their singer was the weak link. That’s right, the singer who went on to fame and fortune as Paul Young. So what do I know? Sorry if I jinxed it for you, ladies.
But happily they seem not to dwell on coming so tantalisingly close to stardom, and in this 2013 interview the two Debbies focus on the things they got to do and the fun they had. From Debbie L: “We were like kids, just messing about and having a good time, but we were getting paid for it as well.” From Debbie C: “Absolutely no regrets at all, I would not change anything. People ask me if I miss the Mint Juleps…I miss sitting in our minibus with those five other people, because we used to laugh till we cried.”
There are other fans who refuse to forget the Mint Juleps. Like Niall McMurray, who has written eloquently in praise of their single Docklands. And like American superfan Robert Doyle, who wrote an outstanding blog piece on them in 2014 (see Part 2: The Music), and started the excellent Mint Juleps tribute page on Facebook the following year. He’s done a great job of keeping the flame alive, finding lost video gems from the past and building a fan community. Mint Julep members sometimes make cameo appearances in the comments – as four are sisters, it’s not difficult for them to stay in touch.
I have no doubt they can all still sing beautifully. Unhappily the Half Moon Theatre is now a JD Wetherspoon pub. But if Debbie, Debbie, Julie, Lizzie, Marcia and Sandra ever feel like getting together for a reunion concert in their east London patch, I’ll be first in line for a ticket. Or perhaps second in line. Just after Robert Doyle.
With no qualification besides being an obsessive fan, I was invited to give a sixth form lecture at Watford Grammar School for Boys – my alma mater – on 20th January 1984, on the subject of popular music. The invitation arrived due to the enthusiasm of my cousin Phil, who by coincidence was now teaching Classics at the school – and perhaps due to the credulity of John Holman, the teacher tasked with organising the sixth form lectures.
I was flattered, although initially hesitant. But I had given a best man’s speech the previous year which went down well, so I thought, why not? I prepared a lecture entitled “Songs and Stories”, consisting of ten songs, from the 1950s through to the 1970s, each accompanied by a brief introduction, and arrived at the school at lunchtime. I had left the school in December 1974: nine years later Mr L.K. Turner was still the headmaster. He had always seemed a remote figure, so it was a strange feeling, returning as an adult to sip sherry in his office with a couple of other teachers.
Off duty from enforcing discipline, Mr Turner – or Trog, as I will always think of him – was relaxed. Conversation turned to some CND (Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament) graffiti which had adorned the school wall all through my career there. He mused whether any contemporary issue would arouse the same strength of feeling – this was Margaret Thatcher’s fifth year in power – and I thought he sounded a little wistful that the youth had become apathetic. This surprised me, I remembered him as the embodiment of “The Man”. We concluded that CND at the time was probably still – or rather, again – the issue most likely to stir young people to protest.
I delivered my speech to a fairly passive audience, perhaps tired on a Friday afternoon, perhaps a little surprised and indignant that they were expected to pay attention to a 27-year old’s views on pop music – quite reasonably wary of this sacred youth territory being annexed by the curriculum. Or maybe they found the lecture dull. Certainly it proved a tougher audience than a good natured and slightly tipsy wedding gathering. The talk was enlivened when my final music selection suddenly came on at twice the volume of the previous nine: presumably this was a way for the boys tasked with the audio to show appreciation for their favourite – perhaps the only one they liked.
In the discussion afterwards one boy pointed out that I had omitted so many great artists – what about Hendrix, for instance? Of course, Hendrix was indeed mighty, but being limited to ten records, I couldn’t cover everything. A teacher posed the question: was pop music just a sop to keep youth from protesting or getting involved in politics? I had, and still have little sympathy with this view – the music is real. I responded tartly: “That sounds like the question of a conspiracy theorist who doesn’t like music.” That got a few sniggers at his expense, but I later regretted my sharpness – he had only been trying help me by breathing life into the flagging conversation.
Thirty-seven years later, I have stumbled on my notes. It doesn’t seem like my tastes have changed very much: if called upon now (and I’m not holding my breath) my music choice would be little changed from 1984, although I would phrase a few things differently. And I might omit the Rascals song, which though it still sounds great, doesn’t define a genre as the others do.
With my notes was the programme of sixth form lectures for the Spring Term. I had completely forgotten, if I ever knew, what august company I was keeping. Later that term one speaker was the Rt. Hon. Cecil Parkinson MP – previous holder of two cabinet jobs, later holder of two more – who also served two terms as Chairman of the Conservative Party. Another was Ken Livingstone, leader of the Greater London Council, which was to last just two more years before it was abolished by Thatcher’s government. Livingstone later bounced back to serve two terms as Mayor of London.
I don’t think I was aware of these political heavyweights being on the same bill that term, and just as well: I was nervous enough already. Thankfully I didn’t have to follow them on stage.
SONGS AND STORIES (20 January 1984)
I want to talk to you about various aspects of popular music over the last thirty years. I should say right at the beginning that I won’t be attempting to give a full history of pop music – I couldn’t begin to do justice to the subject in the time available – nor will I attempt to draw a tidy conclusion at the end. All I want to do is to play some records which have been important in the development of pop music, and to talk about each in isolation. This is, I should emphasise, a purely subjective choice.
Some of you probably aren’t interested in pop music; others of you may enjoy it, but may not expect to see it reduced to being a compulsory subject in the school curriculum. To both, I apologise. But if some of you come to discover and enjoy the music played today, I’ll be well satisfied.
The first record I want to play is by the Robins, later known as the Coasters, recorded in Los Angeles in 1954. America during the 1950s had hundreds of black vocal groups making records, often with very little to distinguish them. But what set the Coasters apart was their hugely talented songwriters and producers, Leiber and Stoller. The Coasters churned out a long string of records, each of which was a miniature opera – a perfectly formed piece of theatre in three minutes.
Their better known records include Charlie Brown and Yakety Yak which both have a flippant teenaged theme. But the song I’m going to play is Riot in Cell Block Number 9 which is possibly the most menacing and hard hitting drama on record. Full use is made of sound effects, while the singer’s voice is tinged with sufficient brutality to be convincing as a man doing time for armed robbery.
Elvis Presley is these days most often recalled as a grossly fat 40-year old crooning ballads to to blue-rinsed matrons in Las Vegas. This image does no justice to the fiery and controversial figure he once was. During the 1950s Presley became a huge star by the violence of his music, his moody good looks and his lithe and suggestive dancing. American television found his stage act so profoundly shocking that they would only show his performances from the waist up.
Presley was born into a very poor family in Mississippi where he grew up surrounded by and enjoying black music. His success came about because he combined in his music the rhythm and mood of black rhythm and blues music with the sharp lyrics and energy of white country music. To understand the impact Presley made in the 1950s it’s important to realise what went before him. The music scene was dominated by soft ballad singers like Frank Sinatra, Johnny Ray and Rosemary Clooney; there was no appreciable teenaged audience. This was partly because teenagers had very little money to spend, and partly because the music scene was too middle aged and sedate to be of interest. But the emergence of rock’n’roll, epitomised by Presley, and the growing affluence of the fifties was to change that. The record which best demonstrates the violence and youthful energy of rock’n’roll is
Doo-wop is the slightly comical term applied to a very popular ballad style of the 1950s. It is so called because nonsense phrases like doo-wop would often be used as harmony against the lead vocal.
Literally hundreds of black American vocal groups used the style, and would actually sing on the street corners of their neighbourhood. They would often sing unaccompanied, sometimes to avoid detracting from their intricate vocal harmonies, but more often for reasons of economy. Recently the unaccompanied, or a capella style has made an unexpected come back with The Flying Pickets.
The proliferation of groups singing in this style meant that thousands of records were made, usually very cheaply and mostly of indifferent quality. Sharp-eyed producers would pull a local group into the studio, set up some beers, press a few dollars into their hands, and ask them to sing. The results were often appalling.
The Five Satins would have been forgotten with the rest of them, had it not been for the extraordinary quality of one of their records, In the Still of the Night.
The first reaction on hearing this song is probably one of amusement at the weird arrangement and the deliberately dumb backing vocals. But if you listen closer you might hear the simplicity and understated power which makes this, in many enthusiasts’ view, the finest record ever made. They say the song hangs in the air over New York City on summer nights. I have no idea what that’s supposed to mean but it’s probably true.
Elvis Presley may have had a shattering effect on the calm of Eisenhower’s America, but he was ultimately assimilable. For all his raucous shouting and obscene gyrations, he loved his mum, he ate mashed banana sandwiches, and he was proud to do his bit for Uncle Sam when he was called up in 1958. He was, in spite of everything, an all-American boy. Little Richard made no such concessions, and no one has ever understood him.
Little Richard would sing and play piano with demonic energy, standing and bashing at the piano as if he was trying to smash it. He had a powerful voice, always on the edge of hysteria; he would sing with a passion and commitment which belied the fact that the lyrics were usually quite meaningless.
From 1956 to 1958 Little Richard had a string of million-selling records. His manager found himself without any new material to promote, and with a typical disregard for commercial considerations, Little Richard refused to go back into the studio. Instead, with casual genius, he sent in a rough demo tape lasting less than a minute, called Keep A-Knockin’. This was dressed up in the studio to a respectable length and became another million seller.
If rock’n’roll was marvellous drivel, Keep A-Knockin’ is a fine example. It is so brash and confrontational that you have to take sides – you either love it or hate it. This was very much the stuff that helped create the generation gap.
Predictably, no performer could keep up this level of energy and commitment for long. While touring Australia in 1957, a fire had broken out in the plane he was travelling in. Convinced that he would die, he got down on his knees and promised that if he was spared he would give up “the devil’s music” and devote himself to the gospel. The plane landed safely, and Little Richard was as good as his word – since when God has never looked back.
In complete contrast to Little Richard, Sam Cooke was the very model of urbane sophistication. Well-groomed, polite and clever, he had frequently sung in American night-clubs, and sang in a smooth, sweet style that owed much to his training as a gospel singer.
From 1960 to 1965 he made many fine soul records. Unfortunately he had to fight a running battle with his record company, who wanted to turn him into a second Sammy Davis Jr. But Cooke’s voice was distinctive and beautiful enough to transform the slightest song or the most sickly arrangement into something worth hearing.
But his finest record is Bring it on Home to Me from 1962, in a straightforward gospel style, making much use of close harmony and call and response with a second vocalist.
Cooke was never popular with the white American establishment; he was too clever, too successful for their taste. Incidentally, he was a close friend of Muhammad Ali (then Cassius Clay) and was among the first into the ring to congratulate him after beating Sonny Liston.
Sam Cooke died in a shooting incident in a hotel in 1964. Some have speculated that this was a CIA set-up.
Listening closely to the slightly hoarse quality of Cooke’s voice, it’s easy to see why Rod Stewart claims Cooke as a major influence. However, it is debatable whether Stewart has ever conveyed such powerful emotion in his singing.
The only record producer ever to acquire the status of legend in his own right is Phil Spector.
After singing, writing and producing a few fairly ordinary hits in the early 60s, Spector slowly developed the production style that was to make his name. Where other producers used a four or five piece rhythm section, Spector used overdubbing to create a multi layered, symphonic effect which he called the “wall of sound”. He took pride in the craftsmanship he lavished on what critics described as trash; he was fond of referring to his “Wagnerian approach to rock’n’roll – little symphonies for the kids”.
By the age of 23 he was a multi-millionaire. Then the problems set in. He put six months work into recording a Christmas album which was released on 22nd of November 1963, the date of president Kennedy’s assassination. Suddenly nobody wanted to hear his version of Frosty the Snowman. Three months later the Beatles arrived in America, crushing all opposition before them. Finally, the enemies he had made by his idiosyncratic behaviour conspired to bring about the failure of what he regarded as his greatest record – Ike and Tina Turner’s River Deep Mountain High.
Humiliated, he went into virtual retirement, an increasingly enigmatic figure in dark glasses surrounded by bodyguards. Always image conscious, he enjoyed this reputation; he was quoted as saying “It isn’t funny when you see your father’s head blown apart by a shotgun.” We have no evidence that anything like this ever happened to him. Either way we can only agree: it isn’t funny to see your father blown apart by a shotgun.
Be My Baby by the Ronettes is probably not Spector’s best recording but it is the one that best illustrates his dictum: symphonies for the kids. A little girl’s voice, singing a lyric of unashamed banality, is surrounded by great waves of sound; one girl and a thousand-piece orchestra. Like it or not you have to agree: it’s way over the top.
John Lennon claimed in 1971 that the Beatles made their best music before they ever signed a recording contract. This remark was probably made to shock rather than to inform. But what he meant was that before the Beatles ever reached the studio, they had a raw pace and excitement which was never quite captured in their more polished studio recordings.
From 1960 to 1963, hundreds of beat groups sprang up in Liverpool, and many of these make the trip to Hamburg, where their rough and ready music was very much in demand at the local night clubs.
Conditions in these night clubs were appalling. The groups had to play for stints up to eight hours; they would consume vast countries of alcohol and drugs, and more than once their performances were interrupted by violence between rival gangs.
The track which I’m about to play comes from the Live at the Star Club album. This was not released until 1976; it was taken from an amateur recording of the Beatles performance. This explains the poor sound quality. But it is difficult to listen to this recording without getting some feeling of how exciting those early performances must have been, and without an intimation of the huge talent that was to take the world by storm in 1963 and 1964.
Listening to this today, it is hard to believe that the man playing bass guitar and singing backing vocals is currently at number one with Pipes of Peace.
Aretha Franklin with the daughter of a black preacher in Detroit, the Reverend CL Franklin. This man was a wealthy and by all accounts devastating Baptist preacher, who held sway over a huge and devoted congregation, and commanded large fees for his appearances.
The influence of gospel music and the church was the foundation of Aretha’s success, but this success took a long time in coming. From 1960 until 1966, she made scores of records with CBS; but while everyone agreed she was very talented, none of the records were artistically or commercially successful.
1966 saw her move to Atlantic Records. and November of that year saw the historic recording session with Atlantic’s top producer, Jerry Wexler. With the rest of the American music business looking on with interest, Wexler decided to set Aretha loose. Where before she had recorded in a clipped, polished style, Wexler encouraged her to sing her heart out, over a taut, understated backing. The result was definitive soul music; pure, uninhibited and powerful.
The Rascals didn’t just play soul music – they understood it. What made this unusual was that they were white, at a time when for white people to play soul music was virtually unheard of. Blue-eyed soul they called it.
Besides that I have to admit that their story is not particularly interesting. But they left us one monumentally exciting record. The frenetic Good Lovin’ which was a US number one in 1966. In Britain it never did a thing.
They wouldn’t agree, but in many ways the Sex Pistols can be seen as the true successors to Little Richard. Both rely on uncompromising attack; both produce a violent confrontational sound. Significantly, both produced their finest records in a period of less than 12 months; it was simply not possible to maintain the intensity of feeling – in the Sex Pistols case hatred – which inspired their most powerful work.
Their manager Malcolm McLaren has always claimed that he created the group from nothing, that they were totally untalented and owed all their success to his promotion and publicity stunts. This is simply not true; for despite the Sex Pistols indifferent musicianship and unpleasant behaviour, they make uniquely powerful records, which again like Little Richard, forced the listener to take sides.
Sadly, Sid Vicious started to believe his own publicity; he stabbed his girlfriend to death and later killed himself – a born victim carrying on his shoulders the accumulated hang-ups and neuroses of his generation.
When the plans you made are a total dead loss Just take a right on your way to Maple Cross Take a trip to No Dragon Wood Take a trip to No Dragon Wood
They had it checked and they know it’s clean Of dragon dung since 1415 Come and chill in No Dragon Wood Come and chill in No Dragon Wood
Oh they used to call it Bottom Wood A bummer of a name, no it weren’t no good Meet you down at No Dragon Wood Meet you down at No Dragon Wood
They got birds, squirrels and maybe frogs They got fallen trees and mossy logs All to see at No Dragon Wood All to see at No Dragon Wood
There’s lynxes, bears and crocodiles You’ll have to take your chances You’ll prob’ly have to fend off Rhinoceros advances But you don’t have to worry in the least ‘bout incineration by a mythical beast
If we carry on for a couple more miles We can get a ourselves a beer in Chalfont St Giles And you don’t need no more excuses To sample those Creative Juices Come on down to No Dragon Wood Come on down to No Dragon Wood Oh yeah Get your ass down to No Dragon Wood
My parents were members of the Watford U3A Creative Writing group in the 1990s and 2000s, and almost all of these pieces by my father (Aelwyn Edwards 1919-2015) were written during that period. Where they relate to specific memories, I have attempted to order them chronologically, and the others according to their estimated date of writing. The photographs and links are my additions.
This piece should really be preceded by another piece entitled “My Reading”, because we learn to read stories before we even dream of writing them, and some of the stories we read will have made a greater impact on our young minds than others. What have I remembered from those days? The stories by Frank Richards in “The Magnet” every week about Greyfriars School, with Harry Wharton, Bob Cherry, Billy Bunter and Hurree Jamset Ram Singh. Lorna Doone, Treasure Island, Alice in Wonderland, Sherlock Holmes, Northwest Passage, and Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World”, these made an impact on me. And, of course, I keenly devoured the county cricket batting and bowling averages. The books we were obliged to read at school for our exams made little or no impact on me. Our English teacher at school despaired of my unimaginative weekly essays; my first loves were always Maths and Chemistry –not much opportunity for creative writing there! Yes – “unimaginative”, that’s the word.
When I came home from abroad after the war, I was surprised to learn how much my letters home had been appreciated; after my parents had read them, they were passed around our friends. “What wonderful letters”, one particularly effusive friend said to me, “you could have a great future as a writer”. But that was all very well; from abroad I had been writing about new countries, new experiences; no imagination was required of me, it was all happening. I suppose I have always had some talent for description, but there was never much call then for metaphors or similes; there was little or no poetry, it was mostly factual.
During my business career, I was quite good at writing long reports on difficult technical matters in language that could be understood and appreciated by non-technical readers. All very commendable, but there was still no call for metaphors or similes, just plain unimaginative facts. I have from time to time written some so called poems when something has moved me, but are they poetry? I doubt it.
Then along comes U3A. Here was a challenge to indulge in some creative writing. I believe I have shown some flashes of imagination along the way, but they are only flashes. I enjoy writing, sitting in front of a word processor, letting the thoughts come along, but I envy much of the writing read out by my U3A colleagues, especially the imaginative bits. No, my English master was right – too many facts, not enough imagination. The metaphors and similes continue to elude me.
Early Childhood Memory
I believe I have become a mature adult without my nature being particularly acquisitive, and with a tendency to think well of my fellow human beings. Yet my first conscious memory is of myself as a person with obsessive desires and a fierce capacity for resentment.
I was being wheeled along in a pushchair by my mother; I suppose my father and my brother were there as well, but I have no recollection of them. We were walking home along Allerton Road in Liverpool, where the No.8 trams ran in a grassed area in the middle of the road, and the pavements were also edged with grass. My mother was in a tearing hurry to get home, after we had been out to tea with friends. She seemed tense or worried about something, as if the outing had ended disastrously in some way – perhaps someone had said something that annoyed her, or she had some pressing physical desire to get home at the earliest possible moment.
Relaxed and comfortable in my pushchair, I surveyed the world outside, and rejoiced in the beauty of the daisies growing in the grass. I expressed a desire for our progress to be delayed so that I could pick some of these lovely daisies to take home. My mother, however, was implacable in her refusal of my very reasonable request, and I spent the remainder of the journey home complaining over and over again:”I wish I could get out and pick flowers”. My constant reiteration of this phrase can hardly have improved my mother’s state of mind, and I remember feeling quite bitter towards her at the time.
I take comfort from the thought that, if I had not remembered this episode of obsessional desire and resentment, it would have remained hidden deep in my subconscious mind, ready to emerge in some terrible form later in life. That it has not so far done so, is something for which we must all be eternally grateful.
From time to time, the Church of Saint Lawrence in Abbots Langley plays host to a gypsy funeral. These funerals are an amazing sight, the hearse being drawn by a team of magnificent, beautifully groomed black horses, proudly sporting brilliant white cockades. My reaction to this sight borders on that of a child seeing something wonderful – an exclamation of “Wow!”.
And I remember how one day, many years ago, when I was aged six, living in the suburbs of Liverpool, a friend ran up to me in the street, and breathlessly panted: “Come down to the end of the street, quick, or we’ll miss it”. Not knowing what to expect, I followed his bidding, and ran down to the main road that crossed at the end of the street… and then it came, round a curve in the road, a magnificent funeral procession. But instead of the usual boring old horse-drawn carriages, there was this wonderful sight, never seen before. No horses, no carriages, but a glorious cavalcade of beautiful gleaming motor cars. For that six-year-old boy, there was only one word to describe it – “Wow!”
The Gold Watch
By Easter 1926, my father had been teaching at Granby Street School in Liverpool for nearly 20 years. When he left to take up a headship in Wales, he was presented by staff and pupils with a gold watch inscribed “A mark of affection and esteem”.
He wore it every day for the rest of his life, tucked into his waistcoat pocket at the end of a gold chain. Every night before going to bed he would wind it up, slowly and carefully. After he died, the watch passed to my elder brother, who kept it at the bottom of a cardboard box. When my brother died, it came to me; it looked very sad, lying in this box, so, encouraged by the rest of my family, I took it out and tried to coax it into life. After it had made a few spasmodic attempts to get going, I took it to the watch man in Abbots Langley. He peered at it, then announced that it was a bit out of his class, but, if I wished, he could take it to a friend of his in London, but it might be a bit expensive.
I agreed to have it done, and in due course, he returned it, saying: “It’s a nice little piece”. Now, I wind it slowly and carefully every morning, and on those rare occasions when I forget to wind it, a strange feeling of guilt comes over me like a distant echo from the past.
“Evening the Wild Woods Among”
When I was six years old, my father was promoted to a head teacher’s post, with the requirement that he should reside in the head teacher’s house a hundred yards or so from the school. This meant that he sold the house that he was in the process of buying, leaving him with some cash in hand, which he used in part to furnish the new house. Among his acquisitions at the time I remember a small billiard table, and a large picture which hung over the fireplace in the living room.
The picture was of a leafy path winding through an autumn-tinted wood; in the centre of the picture were two rabbits, sitting on the path, contemplating the scenery. The title of the picture, written in script, was “Evening the Wild Woods Among”. Some years later, as I approached my years of discrimination, it dawned on me that this title was rather comical, and outrageously twee. Imagine my delight to find that my mother’s opinion on the matter coincided with mine. Her sense of humour ran exactly parallel with mine, but I’m afraid that my father sometimes found our amusement not always in the best of taste.
As a postscript to this tale, it was a matter of great satisfaction to discover that when I took my intended bride home to meet my parents, she read the title beneath the picture, and could scarcely control her mirth.
He was a strong, stocky man with red hair and an unruly red beard. He was, in fact, my father’s uncle, and he farmed a mountain in a high Welsh valley. He spoke no word of English. I was about six years old when, during a visit to the farm, he decided to teach me my numbers in Welsh. He sat by his roaring fireplace, with a huge kettle hanging from a hook directly over the fire. On the hob, a large pot of tea sat permanently, ready to be poured out when required. In the oven by the fire, large sheets of oatcake were baking, and would in due course be turned out by Auntie Kate, to cool on the hob.
He had the hoarse sing-song voice which cropped up in our family from time to time. He put his arm round my shoulder and started on the numbers: “Un, dau, tri”. I struggled ywith the unfamiliar vowels, but he seemed pleased with the result. We worked up through the numbers, until we reached eight, nine, ten: “Wyth, naw, deg”. When he was satisfied with my progress, he gave a great hoarse crow of delight, and I was rewarded with a piece of newly baked oatcake, spread with newly churned butter.
Cadwaladr lives again in my nephew David, who is currently creating a home by renovating a derelict silkworm farm in the south of France.
We have a photograph of David, seated on a low wall, nursing a chain-saw in his lap. His unruly red hair and beard take me straight back almost eighty years, learning my numbers by the roaring fire.
The Taste and Smell of Aelwyn
What does my name taste like? What does it smell like? My name recalls the memories of my childhood, like the crisp apples in my father’s garden, the scent of the white lilac outside my bedroom window, the wonderful rice pudding my mother made, the damp following the rain that comes sweeping down the mountain, linseed oil on a cricket bat, and the scent of new-mown hay.
Water Under The Bridge
There was a favourite game in my youth in which I would stand with a friend on one side of a bridge that passed over a stream. We would each choose a small twig, and together we would drop our twigs into the water, and then rush to the other side of the bridge to see whose twig emerged first from under the arch. There were numerous theories applied to determine the size and shape of a winning stick. If a twig was too big, it was more likely to hit some obstacle lurking in the water; if it was too small, it could be stopped altogether by an obstacle, so there was clearly an optimum medium size. A refinement in this process was to choose a twig that had at one end the prongs of a fork, so that if it hit an object, the fork would initiate a turning movement to enable the twig to progress beyond the obstruction.
There comes a time in all our lives, probably on more than one occasion, when we are about to embark on a path where the outcome is uncertain. We cast ourselves into a stream on one side of the bridge, not knowing what is in store; whether we will be stopped, or delayed, by some hidden obstruction, or whether we will emerge successfully on the other side, preferably ahead of our competitors. All we can do is to prepare as best we can, remembering the lesson of the medium-sized twig with a fork at one end.
The Compleat Angler or Dedication
I was brought up in a land of tumbling Welsh streams, with rocky pools where trout would lurk, swimming lazily in the sunny waters, waiting for the next flood that would bring fresh food down from the hills. In our small town there was a breed of wiry old men who spoke little English, who, after a spell of rain, would emerge purposefully from their cottage doors, clutching fishing rods and with satchels over their backs. They knew that the rain would have been enough to flood the streams, and the trout would be feeding. They would return two or three hours later with bulging satchels, happy with the prospect of a few tasty suppers to come.
Occasionally I tried my luck at fishing, and sometimes I would have a little modest success, enough for one small supper. I sometimes wondered whether I was doing the right thing, killing fish for my own gratification, but at least I was supplying the household with food. In any case, I ate meat, and was prepared to pay other people to kill animals on my behalf, so my conscience was not seriously troubled. But on the many occasions when I caught nothing, I had still spent the afternoon in the glorious countryside, scrambling up and down the banks of rushing streams, with rewarding glimpses of the surrounding hills.
It is all so different here, in this flat English country where I now live. Fishing is a totally different occupation from what I once knew. Here, the anglers sit for hours by the side of a canal, their rods propped up on the bank, surrounded by expensive-looking gear and a bucket of squirming maggots, gazing at nothing. What do they think about? Do they think at all? Are they just escaping from some even less exciting activity at home? And even when they catch a fish they throw it back in again. Are their consciences troubled by the thought of inflicting pain on the fish for their own gratification, with not even the excuse of procuring food? They huddle against the most severe of weathers, which leads one to suppose that they are fiercely dedicated to something, but to what? And if they have caught nothing at the end of the day, what have they to remember? A view of the opposite bank, a few barges passing by to interrupt their reverie, and walkers on the towpath behind them cursing gently as they take evasive action past the ends of the rods.
No; I prefer the old way.
He had dreaded this moment from early morning. As soon as he woke up he had sat on the edge of the bed, and the feeling of foreboding hit him in the pit of his stomach. Before the end of the day he would have to undergo an ordeal which would expose him to the critical gaze of hundreds of people. He was sure to make a complete ass of himself; and worse – what if his mission failed? His shame would be known to everyone, and he would never be able to live it down.
He hardly noticed what he ate for breakfast; somehow, he got through the morning, and his lunch tasted of sawdust.
And now his time had come. After much fumbling, he finally managed to secure his protective clothing; his comrades wished him well. He almost stumbled as he went down the steps, and set off on the long, long walk. For the first time as a member of the school cricket team, he was going out to bat.
The Cricket Bat
Willow growing by the water,
Branches polled to make it stronger.
This will make the wood grow harder.
Then maturing, ripe for cutting.
Comes the axeman, fells the willow,
Cuts it into chunky slices,
Measures length and breadth and thickness.
Skilful hands then shape and polish.
Add the handle, glue it tightly.
Proudly taken to the wicket,
Scoring runs in ones and twos,
Boundaries, too, in fours and sixes.
Till the day comes for retirement,
Abandoned sadly in the attic,
Gathering dust for evermore.
The Six Senses
It was a blazing summer day. The grass was green and still retained the scent of a recent mowing.. A rook cawed from one of the trees that stood tall, shading one corner of the cricket ground. The game had not been particularly exciting, but I was enjoying myself, just being there, and taking part.
I was fielding in the slips. The bowler – he was the local postman – trundled up to the wicket to make his delivery, and I remember seeing the ball hit the edge of the bat. The next thing that I was aware of was discovering that, for some inexplicable reason, I was lying on the floor, with my elbow grazing the grass, and I thought what a fool I must look, falling over in front of all these people. In the next instant, to my surprise, I discovered that the ball had become firmly lodged in my outstretched right hand; I had made a brilliant diving catch.
Now, how did this all happen? My conscious mind knew nothing at all about what was going on – it had merely told me not to do something so stupid as to fall over in public. So who, or what, told me to dive for the ball? Was it a sixth sense, providing me with the impetus to dive? After all, that is why I was there, to catch the ball if it came my way, but surely my conscious mind should have been aware of what was happening. I understand that our brains has two halves; do these two halves operate independently of each other without any mutual intercommunication? Does one half control our normal activities, while the other half acts secretly and mysteriously, controlling our dreams, and providing us with a sixth sense that comes to our rescue when needed?
A Telephone Call to Remember
I had been in India for over two years with, of course, no home leave, when I was offered the chance of attending a Staff Navigation course in Shropshire. This involved sitting an exam in Delhi, which I passed, and shortly afterwards I was on my way. This involved hopping from airfield to airfield across India from East Bengal to Karachi, where I boarded an Imperial Airways Sunderland flying-boat which, after some delays, eventually landed in Poole Harbour. Wonderful! I could pick up a telephone and call home! When I did, the the astonishment and disbelief in my mother’s voice was wonderful to hear, and in two days I was home, with three weeks leave before the course started, a mere sixty miles away with more snatched weekends at home. Amazing!
Cockroaches and Litter
There is nothing quite like the train journey from Bombay to Calcutta, unless it is the journey from Calcutta to Bombay which, fortunately, I have not had to experience. I undertook this journey as part of my service to King and Country, being, like so much in service life, something to be endured, especially so in India.
The train pulled out of Bombay in mid-afternoon and soon started its climb up to the Deccan, the central plateau in that part of the country, and as we travelled, the heat of the day gradually diminished. I had supplied myself with reading matter for the journey, including that day’s copy of the Bombay Times. The first-class accommodation was a space, perhaps ten feet square, containing a bed that folded down from the wall of the compartment; it was reasonably comfortable.
There are lessons to be learnt on this type of journey. One is never to leave any food, especially fruit, in an open position where it can be seen. When you stop at a station, there are many things that strike you, such as the heat, the milling, loudly chattering hordes of people, and the monkeys squatting and chattering on the roof above the platform. If there is any food exposed in your compartment, before you realise what is happening one of the monkeys will have invaded your space and carried off his booty back on to the roof, where he proceeds to demolish it, telling his friends about his exploit, while his beady eye defies you to seek a remedy. The next lesson, learnt during the first night on the train, related to living conditions in that noisy, litter-strewn country. Sleeping comfortably enough on the bed, if for any reason you wish to switch on the light, you are immediately aware of a scuttling sound, and there you see dozens of cockroaches on the floor scurrying for shelter, some of them under your bed. It is a sickening experience, but like so many things, you get used to it, and accept it as a way of life.
At the first stop the next day, newspaper boys came along the platform selling the Bombay Times. Very efficient, you thought, as you started to read it, then you realise, that althought the date of the paper was correct for that day, it contained no news at all, merely articles and political comment. You then realised that these papers had in fact been printed in Bombay on the previous day, and had travelled with you on the train, to be produced for your delectation the following morning. Lunch that day was taken at Allahabad, with the temperature at 120F in the shade.
Another night on the train, remembering to avert your eyes when you switched on the light to reach for a drink of water, then finally, arrival in Calcutta, where you are expected, and transported to the relative heaven of an RAF airfield.
The 1948 Olympics
I was fortunate to have been present for two days of the 1948 Olympic Games at Wembley, and I have a very clear memory of some of the events. Before the Games began, the identity of the runner who would bring the Olympic Torch into the stadium was a closely guarded secret. It was widely assumed that it would be Sydney Wooderson, holder of the world record for the mile, and a great favourite with the British public. In the event, the runner who emerged from the tunnel was totally unrecognised by the crowd. He was a young, athletic, fair-haired man, presumably chosen because he was the organisers’ idea of a Greek god. A great opportunity to honour a much respected British runner had been missed.
My clearest memory of my first visit, a Saturday, is of the 4 x 100 metre relay race. The American team were widely expected to win, and sure enough they came racing in yards ahead of the British runners. But no sooner was the race over than it was announced that at one of the hand-over points, the Americans had handed over the baton outside the prescribed limits, and were accordingly disqualified. The announcement was received in silence, and as the Americans trudged disconsolately out of the stadium they were given a great round of applause from the crowd. As far as we were concerned, they were the clear winners. However, when the film of the event was developed – there were no instant replays in those days – it was realised that the hand-over had in fact been done correctly, and on the following Monday it was announced that the American team had been reinstated as winners.
On the final day of the Games the crowd in the stadium were eagerly awaiting the arrival of the leading marathon runners. In came a Belgian, Etienne Gailly, but no sooner had he started his final lap of the track than he collapsed. It was a pitiful sight. He was desperately trying to reach the finishing line but was overtaken, first by an Argentinian, Delfro Cabrera and then, to the delight of the crowd, the British Tom Richards.
My seat on this final day was near the middle of the back straight of the circuit, from which point I had a splendid view of Fanny Blankers-Koen on the far side of the stadium, streaking to the finishing line with her fair hair streaming behind her. She was a great competitor, and a favourite with the crowd, due in part, I believe, to sympathy felt for the Dutch people over their terrible experience so recently endured under German occupation.
From my seat I had a close up view of the unfortunate ending to the efforts of the Jamaican 4 by 400 relay team. They were a very impressive quartet of runners including Arthur Wint, who had already won gold in the 400 metres event. In the relay, the Jamaicans were well ahead when, I think it was in the third leg, Wint was steaming along the back straight when he was suddenly seized by cramp. He fell to the ground at the side of the track. beating his baton on the ground in a frenzy of rage and frustration.
One of my sons has acquired tickets for this year’s Games, and has offered me one. Regretfully, I have declined his offer, as I think the occasion would be too much for my old bones. A pity, really, as I would have loved to have been able to say I had been at both events, separated by 64 years.
What Goes Around, Comes Around
Kath and I were at the stage when we were getting to know one another. We were staying at my parents’ home, and we had borrowed my father’s car so that I could show Kath some of the delights of my home territory. We drove, only a few miles, to a lake hidden among the mountains and we parked by the roadside on the grass verge. Ahead of us was a strip of land projecting into the water, which concealed from us a small bay further along the lake.
We sat there, enjoying the scenery, holding hands and otherwise minding our own business, when, from around the bend ahead of us came an agitated young man. He came up to us and exclaimed excitedly through the open car window: “I say, did you see that? Extraordinary!”. We had seen nothing out of the ordinary, so he went on: “A swan swam out from behind that bit of land” (indicating the strip of land ahead of us) “with an enormous eel struggling in its beak. It swam on and disappeared over to the other side of the lake”. We expressed our wonderment, but the young man was disappointed that we were unable to share in his excitement, and he went on his way.
About fifteen minutes later, a swan swam out from behind the bit of land, with an enormous eel struggling in its beak. It swam on and disappeared over to the other side of the lake. For a while we were shocked into silence. The young man hadn’t seemed like the sort of person who could foretell what we were about to see; a real prophet would have been a much calmer person. So, the only possible explanation was that we had witnessed a loop in time, but for all our insistence, nobody else seemed to have noticed it.
Boxing Day 1963
My mother died on Boxing Day. We were sitting up in bed having our morning cup of tea, when my brother rang to tell us. It was a shock, of course, but not really a surprise; we had had a feeling, when we saw her in the little cottage hospital in Wales, that we would not see her again. Perhaps we should have gone to see her more often, but it was a long way, and it is not as if we could have done anything. They had looked after her very well in the hospital, and so they should, for she was one of a handful of women who had fought to keep it going thirty years before.
One thing that did surprise us was the reaction of our younger, seven-year-old son. The ten year-old took the news calmly and sadly, but the younger one, usually so capable of controlling his feelings, exploded in a fury of tears and rage; he hadn’t wanted her to die, he said.
Kath’s parents had been staying with us over Christmas, and they immediately insisted that we should have our breakfast, pack a bag and go. They would look after the boys, and that was that. I am not sure at what time we drove off, but it must have been quite early, because it was still light when we arrived, and that was in the days before motorways speeded things up. We shared the driving, but Kath hated the narrow Welsh roads, twisting and turning between dry-stone walls, with no pavements. As we arrived at the familiar little gate above the house, our friends Glanmor and Jean came out, Glanmor in his iron leg supports having hauled himself up the steep steps of slate from the courtyard below. They had been to sit with my father; your cousin Margaret is with him now, they said.
Margaret was my father’s favourite niece; almost fifty years earlier, she used to visit my parents regularly at their home in Liverpool as a welcome relief from the rigours of a nurse’s training. Now, having retired, she was known throughout this part of the country simply as “Matron”. We went down the steps and into the house. Margaret and my father were talking together softly in Welsh, their first language; they were both more comfortable in Welsh, rather than in the English learnt later in the schoolroom. village; later, my brother and his wife arrived Margaret soon went home to her village; later, my brother and his wife arrived – their child-minding had taken a little longer to arrange than ours had. My father wound up the grandfather clock, and that was the end of Boxing Day.
Sense of Smell
The sense of smell is a strange thing. It can be very evocative, in the perfume of a woman’s hair, the scent of new-mown grass, or, in my case, a reminder of one of the most miserable few days of my life.
In 1943 we had been obliged to spend about three weeks in Cairo during our flight from England to India while we waited for some spare aircraft parts to arrive from the U.K. I hated Cairo; it was, literally, a stinking city, full of persistent flies and pestering beggars, and above all, unbearably hot under the July sun. How I hated it! On this particular day I was walking along one of its streets, fending off the flies and thieving ragamuffins, when I suddenly felt sick and faint, and would have fallen had not some soldiers come to help me. They escorted me to a nearby Forces’ canteen, from where I later made my way back to base. The doctor diagnosed heat-stroke caused by a deficiency of salt, and prescribed a few days rest, with strict instructions to drink as much salt water as I could manage during the next few hours, and to make sure I kept up my salt intake thereafter.
Many years later, I was digging a very large hole in the corner of our garden; we had decided to create a swimming pool, and the first requirement was, inevitably, a very large hole. The digging went on happily for a week or two, then one warm Sunday evening, down in the hole, I suddenly felt faint and sick. At the same time, my nostrils picked up a scent that I instantly recognised — it was the stench of Cairo. I had no hesitation in making an instant diagnosis of my ailment — it was heat-stroke. So I clambered out of the hole, drank a couple of pints of salt water, and put my feet up for the rest of the evening.
The cure was effective, and the swimming pool was duly completed and much enjoyed by all the family.
On My Father’s Funeral
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.
What will it be like, being retired? It is an experience most of us go through only once in a lifetime, so that when it happens it is for the first time, and for the last time.
We all know what a weekend is like: two days when you can do more or less what you like. We all know what a holiday is like: two weeks or so when you can almost forget all about the office. But retirement? Well, to start with, it was rather like a long weekend. Then it seemed rather like a long holiday. And eventually you come to realise that this is it! The stress of your job – that black cloud that has followed you around for so long – is no longer there; no more travelling in the rush hour; and as you lie back in bed at eight o’clock in the morning, the sounds you can hear are those of other people going to work. Good luck to them!
A little while after I retired, Kath took early retirement from her stressful job, and suddenly we were able to spend more time together than at any time in the previous thirty years of our married life. But what shall we do with all this lovely, hard-earned free time? To start with, you can catch up with the decorating, sort out that corner of the garden which you never quite got round to, and give yourselves a special holiday. Then what? We took the view that if we were to preserve our sanity, we should keep our minds active, so we decided to become volunteer workers for the Citizens Advice Bureau if they would have us.
Twelve months later, after an exhaustive and exhausting course of lectures and in-house training, we were let loose on an unsuspecting public. Now, nine years on, I suppose we are old hands, but every day brings new problems. Inevitably, a high proportion of the work relates to that ten per cent of the population who are getting progressively poorer while the rest get richer. And every day the questions pour in:
“My business has failed; I owe my suppliers £5,000, I have borrowed €4,000 on my credit cards, and I have a mortgage of £100,000 on my house which is now worth £90,000. What do I do?”
“I’ve had this form in the post. I can’t read or write – could you please tell me what it says, and fill it in for me?”
“My husband died last night. What should I be doing?”
“I’ve had this poll tax demand. What am I supposed to pay it with?”
“I am 16 years old. I have become pregnant, and my parents have thrown me out on the street. Where can I go?”
And so it goes on; it certainly keeps our minds active!
Holidays and Travel
If you are energetic and own a pair of stout walking shoes, then there is no more satisfying walking holiday than following the South-west Coastal Path. This runs for 500 miles west from Minehead in Somerset, round Land’s End, and back eastwards to Poole in Dorset. To my mind, the most rewarding section of the Path is along the north Cornish coast from Hartland Point (which is actually in Devon) to Land’s End. If you stand by the lighthouse at Trevose Head, near Padstow, on a clear day you can see almost the whole of north Cornwall in two great sweeping bays, from Hartland Point to the north-east, and south-west to St. Ives.
A good starting point is the pub at Hartland Quay, which is right on the water’s edge by a beautiful stretch of jagged rock outcrops which are constantly battered by the sea. On the wall in the bar of the pub is a chart showing the position of all the shipwrecks on that part of the coast over the last two hundred years; the landlord sits morosely in the corner behind the bar, no doubt recalling the days of the wreckers who lured ships on to the rocks in order to raid their cargoes. Walking south-west, you are soon out of Devon, and into a world never seen by most travellers, a world of hidden coves and headlands, high cliffs, abandoned tin mines, rusting breeches buoy equipment used to rescue sailors from wrecks long since forgotten, a variety of seabirds, and always lovely views. Some of the walking is decidedly strenuous, involving steep climbs and descents, but always rewarding.
If you intend to spend more than one day on the coastal path, a certain amount of advance planning is essential, as public transport away from the main towns is non-existent. You can, of course, carry a tent on your back, or walk back to your starting point each day, but the best way to make progress along the path (although environmentally unfriendly) is to use two cars; take both cars to the end of the proposed walk, abandon one there, and drive (with all members of the party) to the starting point. At the end of the walk, pile into the waiting car and drive back to the starting point to pick up the other car; and make sure that the right car keys are in the right place at the right time.
Excellent booklets are available giving details of the route and pointing out items of interest along the way.
Remember, dear, when we were young,
Our hearts were gay, our days were long.
You loved me then, I love you still.
Gone are those days, say what you will.
But when a rainbow fills the sky,
I pause to think and wonder why
Vows we made have passed us by.
A Holiday Trophy
We were on holiday in Northumberland with our family in the days when we were young and active. We climbed mountains, walked by the side of tumbling streams, and embarked on a boat to the Farne Islands, where, apart from grey seals, we saw puffins feeding their young, ceaselessly flying to and fro carrying cargoes of sandworms in their beaks, and diving with them into the tunnels where they had made their nests. Inevitably, of course, the Farne Islands lighthouse reminded us of the time when we had first read of the heroic deeds of Grace Darling, the lighthouse-keeper’s daughter as she rowed her boat to the rescue in stormy seas.
But in our hotel there was an object which delighted us each day as we left in the morning and returned in the evening. It was a terrestrial globe about two feet in diameter, sea-green in colour and showing the sea and all the Earth’s land masses moulded to show the contours of the mountains; whether or not the mouldings were to scale we never discovered but they were very effective. The globe was mounted on an elegant wooden frame which enabled one to rotate it through 360 degrees of longitude at will. It was a navigator’s delight.
The globe stood in a corner of the hotel foyer, accompanied by a notice stating that similar globes were available for sale at an address a few miles away. I became possessed of a gnawing envy of anyone who could own such a delightful object, until, just before the end of the holiday, it dawned on me that I had a birthday coming up with no idea of what main present I would like. Brilliant! We drove off to the small factory where the globes were made, paid out an amount that significantly increased the cost of the holiday, and returned home with a globe and its stand securely jammed into the rear seat of the car. So now my lovely globe resides in our living-room, where it can be turned through 360 degrees of longitude at will and for ever.
Stratford has been part of my life from about the age of eight. When I was young we used to spend part of our summer holidays at various places on the south coast; which in those days meant two or three days driving from our home. My mother, being starved of culture in our small town, always insisted that the first overnight stop on our journey would be Stratford, the first task when we arrived there being to race round to the theatre to book seats for that evening’s performance in what was then a magnificent new theatre. Although I probably did not make much of Shakespeare’s plays to begin with, I was always aware of the buzz of excitement and anticipation in the audience. One thing I do remember from those early days was peering over the balcony, and seeing Bernard Shaw sitting in the stalls.
Afterwards, during the war, I met Philip in the RAF, and later married his young sister. After the war he had a brilliant academic career, his last appointment being as Shakespearian Professor of English at Birmingham University, based in Stratford, where a duty he delighted in was to coach actors performing at the theatre to help them interpret some of Shakespeare’s more abstruse texts. And so it was that we visited Stratford quite regularly and got to know the ins and outs of the town. Being there with Philip was an education in itself. One of the recurring highlights was eating out after the theatre at “The Black Swan”, also known as “The Dirty Duck”, where the actors used to foregather, many of whom had a cheery word or a wave to greet Philip. But it could not last, and, after a distressing period of illness, emphysema carried him off at much too early an age.
Now, at the start of each year when the theatre programme has been published, our next door neighbour chivvies us with: “What shall we see in Stratford this year?”, and this is becoming an annual routine. So once again we are walking around the streets of Stratford, but we avoid the road where Philip lived and died – it has too many memories.
A Christmas Story
The lights of the church were dimmed. By flickering candle-light, I listened as the congregation around me sang “Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht”. It was a lovely sound, and I felt so much at ease with these people.
How different, I thought, from the wartime years when hatred of Germans was a way of life, a hatred fuelled by the terrible wailing of air raid sirens, the ruthless advance of the German armies and the grimness of the gas chambers. In the years after the war, it had been a long time before I could meet a German man or woman without being aware of a great gulf between us, as if I was meeting some alien beings with whom I had so little in common.
And now, for three years, my two young granddaughters had lived with their parents in a village in Southern Germany, being brought up in this alien environment among these alien people.
Then, one Christmas, I was persuaded to attend the Nativity Play at their village church. The scene was suddenly familiar; the hall was filled with adoring parents and grandparents, children forgetting their lines, teachers trying desperately to get the little actors and actresses into their correct positions, angels with crooked wings, boys reluctantly playing shepherds, wise men and kings. It was all so familiar, only the language was different. How could one have hated these people? They were just like us. Yet these were still the race of people who had done those terrible things, or had allowed them to happen, not so many years ago. So, if they are just like us, how could we be so sure that we could not have done such things, or allowed them to happen, in our own country? This thought burned in my mind, while, by flickering candle-light, the congregation sang “Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht”.
Summer is a state of mind. If winter is for discontent, then summer shall be for contentment and happiness. All our lives, from infancy through to old age, we have collected treasured memories of the long happy days of summer.
Childhood days spent on the beach, digging holes, building castles, splashing in and out of the sea. We remember those times, the sun was always shining: already we had started building up that heap of memories that was to become our mature perception that summer equals happiness. After childhood, happy days followed on the cricket field, chasing round the boundary, holding catches, even scoring a few runs; it was all happiness. Walking up and around the hills near my home, – it didn’t matter whether I was on my own or in company, it was enjoyment experienced to the full.
From 1940 to 1946 I was deprived of five successive summers, but in the following years, summer thrived again, in my remaining bachelor days, and with my partner, and then it was back to the beaches with children, and, in almost no time at all, with grandchildren. There is something within us, a happy facility to remember the best of times more clearly than other times. And so it is that we remember our summers, full of glowing memories. It is a state of mind.
I like throwing my breakfast on the floor. Sometimes when I’ve eaten all I want to – it doesn’t matter whether it’s porridge or Coco Pops – I think to myself, if I just move the plate to the edge of the tray on my high-chair, and tip it up a bit, with a bit of luck the plate will topple and spill the rest of my breakfast all over the floor. And there it sits, a soggy mess of porridge (or Coco Pops) on the floor by the legs of my high-chair. Mummy gets very, very cross, and shouts at me in a loud voice, and carries on muttering to herself as she cleans up the mess and takes it away.
Then, the next time she walks past my chair, she stops, bends down, and gives me a great big kiss on the top of my head. That’s why I like throwing my breakfast on the floor.
The wind catches in my hearing aid;
My head is full of sound,
Trapped, with the music of Hiawatha:
“Pemmican and buffalo - -".
The buzzard soars back over the hill:
"First he danced a solemn measure - -".
Kath and Speff stroll on ahead:
“Then they said to Chibiabos,
The friend of Hiawatha - -".
The path turns out of the wind:
My head is free,
And I am free, to return to the world.
When the Globe Theatre was being built, we subscribed for a paving stone to be laid bearing the name of Kath’s brother, Philip. He had been closely associated with Sam Wanamaker in the initial stages of the Globe project, until ill-health, followed by his death in 1989, meant, that like Sam, he did not live to see the successful completion of the task. The paving stone seemed a fitting memorial to him and to his work.
Kath’s cousin, who had always been very fond of Philip, wanted to come down from North Wales to see the Globe and Philip’s stone, so she came down for the weekend, and on the Saturday we arrived at the theatre. However, because there was to be a matinee of Hamlet that afternoon, the only people allowed on to the paved area were those currently going round on the last guided tour of the morning, and those with tickets for the afternoon performance. This also meant that we could not get to see the inside of the theatre. A young steward (he was black) was guarding the door; Kath moved closer to him, and explained that her cousin Mollie had come all the way from North Wales to see her cousin’s stone, and could he please make an exception. He opened the barrier, and asked us to return as quickly as possible.
We found the stone, and stood by it in silence for a few moments. Then a nearby door into the theatre opened, and we could see that there was something going on in there. Quick as a flash, we were through the door and into the ground area of the theatre. There were quite a few other people there, so we weren’t conspicuous. And there, on the stage was Mark Rylance, Hamlet himself, wearing a T-shirt and shorts, reciting the first Act soliloquy that begins: “O! that this too too solid flesh would melt”. He moved about the stage as he spoke, listened to in total silence. At the end, the makeshift audience applauded, and he took a bow. Only then did we realise that he had in fact been making a sound recording, with microphones at each corner of the stage. This was indeed serendipity; we had moved from the position of seeing nothing, to seeing the stone, and by chance getting entry to the theatre and seeing the master himself performing a scene from Hamlet.
And then, strangest of all, Mark Rylance squatted centre stage, near the front; before him was a small dish of burning incense, while he rocked gently to and fro, uttering a low humming sound. Is he a Buddhist, or is this some strange ritual which he undergoes before each performance? While we were pondering this question, our friendly steward appeared and quickly ushered all the stragglers out of the theatre and back through the barrier. He had done us proud.
At Torre del Lago
At Torre del Lago I stood in the sea;
How the waves came tumbling by.
A new surf board?
Is what I will become.
-forted by the sand and the sun.
And his daughters jump in the water,
We made our way down the slippery track beneath the trees, picking our path cautiously between the boulders. The wet ground was covered with an incandescent carpet of red-brown beech leaves, together with a few leaves of oak. Below us was a raging torrent of clear brown water, swollen by the rain of the previous night.
A short time before, we had stood on a bleak hillside by the grave of my parents. With no-one living near enough to tend the grave, the edges had been invaded by grass, but an overall covering of moss, although a sign of neglect, did lend it an air of tidiness. We stood together for a while, in a mood of helpless silence. Our Scottish granddaughters, having made an inspection of the grave of great grandparents they had never known, wandered among the headstones, attempting to decipher and pronounce the strange Welsh placenames.
The rain started again as we continued down the track, but we were protected by the great canopy of leaves overhead. The river beneath us plunged down and down; at times the tumult of the turbulent water drowned out our talk, but in that great sound we could hear the voices of those who had passed this way before.
His picture shows a man in uniform,
He stares with steady gaze beneath his cap;
But he was not a military man,
He played the cornet in a famous band,
None other than the Besses o' the Barn.
But in Kath's family he's better known
For grandparental deeds which led him on
To bed two sisters - no, not both at once!
But first he married Alice, Sallie's mum,
Sal had a sister Bel, and brothers two.
Now Sallie, she was Kathleen's mum, and she
Had also borne a clever son as well.
Alas, it came to pass that Alice died,
But John, desiring comfort, cast his eye
Upon her sister Edie; but the law
Decreed to him: “In no wise shalt thou wed
Thy dead wife's sister”. John, quite undeterred,
Lived with her anyway, and once again
He fathered four, again two girls, two boys.
Now one of these was Doris, who survives,
A very hale and hearty ninety-four. If we consider the relationship That Doris bears to Sallie, it's a hoot! They share a father, but by different mums, So they're half-sisters, that is very clear. But their two mums are sisters, which in turn, Means they are cousins, so it's plain to see, That they're first cousins and half-sisters too. Now you'll be glad to hear there is no more; John Cooper has a lot to answer for!
Thoughts on Millennium Eve
The birth of a New Year always gives rise to thoughts of the past, of those we have known who are no longer with us, and of the future, wondering what it may hold for us, and for our children.
I have never taken much notice of the significance of particular anniversaries. Certainly, birthdays and other annual events are there to be celebrated, but I am not one of those people who dread the approach of a 60th, 70th or 80th birthday; one day follows another in much the same fashion, no matter how many times the Earth has rotated on its axis or revolved around the Sun since the day of one’s birth. But, of course, there are exceptions; I fancy the fiftieth anniversary of my marriage will not go unnoticed, and the advent of a new Millennium is a bit special.
The celebration of a New Year always seems to be a dreary affair in southern England; I have always found it to be a more significant event in the north, and on the Celtic fringes, while the Scots go quite mad. I have clear memories of some of these occasions.
On the first New Year’s Eve that I can remember, I was aged 7 or 8, and we had come from Wales to stay with relatives in Liverpool. Shortly before midnight I was roused from my sleep to come downstairs and out into the street to hear the sound of a great tradition. On the stroke of midnight came a glorious cacophony; every ship on the River Mersey and in the docks blew its siren, from the toot-toot-toot of the tugboats to the bleating of the ferry-boats and the deep-throated boom of the ocean going liners. There were many more ships then than there are now; it was a memorable sound.
For the New Year of 1950/1951 I was invited to stay with Kath and her family in Wallasey. We were not yet officially engaged, but we knew that it would happen. There was a very real and deeply-felt knowledge that we would shortly be taking a step that would shape the rest of our lives. That alone made it a memorable New Year.
In the early 1960’s we were living in Brookdene Avenue in Oxhey. On this particular New Year’s Eve, we had spent the evening with some Scottish neighbours. We emerged from their house shortly after midnight, ready to share our conviviality with whoever might be around, but the place was totally quiet and deserted. We expressed our opinions of the miserable southern English who lived all around us, but all was not lost. There had been a significant fall of snow during the evening, so a sledge was produced, and we spent a hilarious hour or so pulling each other in turns along the silent length of Brookdene Avenue. Crazy, but memorable.
And now to the Millennium Eve. Our thoughts of the past, of those we have known who are no longer with us, extend, not only to the previous twelve months, but to the whole of our lives. Our thoughts of the future extend for a further period than just the next year. We are aware that the Millennium is a unique event in our lives, and for that reason it has given rise to a greater solemnity and a greater degree of celebration than is accorded to a normal New Year. Why, even the southern English condescended to notice it!
Waste Not Want Not
Sixteen Christmases ago, soon after we first moved into our present home, we bought a tiny Christmas tree, about eighteen inches high. At Twelfth Night, we removed the tinsel and baubles, and realised that the tree had some roots, so, ever optimistic, we planted the tree by the fence where we could see it from our kitchen and bedroom windows.
This magnificent tree is now two storeys high, and, this year, for the first time, it has provided a home for a pair of magpies. The magpies were very busy, building their nest with some very unwieldy-looking pieces of wood and some lesser twigs. In no time at all, both parents were flying around furiously, fetching food for their voracious young. Then, alas, disaster struck! While both parents were away foraging for food, a crow raided the nest and removed one of the chicks, which lay at the foot of the tree for a while, a pathetic little bundle of black and white feathers. The crow then removed it a few yards over the fence into the paddock, and started to attack the bundle with its vicious beak. After a brief shower of black and white feathers, the crow began its meal. The distraught parents tried to attack the crow, but the crow defended itself by a series of brief counter-attacks. The two magpies were no match for the much larger crow, and all they achieved was the slowing down of the meal.
Eventually, the crow flew away. One of the magpies, however, stayed behind, and finished off the meal.
A Peak of Happiness
We started planning our Golden Wedding celebration more than twelve months ahead – our friends had been telling us that we needed to do this before all the best places got booked up. So, after some research, and on the recommendation of a friend, we decided on St Michael’s Manor in St Albans as the venue. It had a “special event” menu comprising a mouth watering buffet lunch, a large dining area holding up to sixty people, with the freedom of the gardens and lake, should the weather be fine. When we told our sons what we were planning, they said “What about music? You two cannot have a celebration without music”. So they said they would organise something.
So we started compiling the guest list, a process which over the next few months was punctuated by such exclamations as “What on earth do you want to invite them for?” Eventually the list, including some last minute additions, totalled seventy-eight for a venue that held sixty, but fortunately, twenty were unable to come for various reasons, including, alas, two who died. The last minute additions included two drivers for guests who couldn’t face the prospect of driving themselves to St Albans.
The day dawned fine and bright, and by midday was getting warm. The invitations had said “12 noon for 1pm: informal dress” and they started rolling in, and were all present and correct by one o’clock, chatting on the patio clutching glasses of champagne and orange juice. The guests had come from far and wide, not only from the four corners of England, but from Scotland, Wales, France and Switzerland. Apart from Kath and myself, there were six survivors of the wedding day, of whom four were present, including my nephew David, who during the whole wedding service fifty years ago was fast asleep in his carry-cot at the back of the church. A very special guest was Kath’s ninety-eight-year-old Auntie Doris.
The buffet lunch was every bit as mouth-watering as had been promised. At the point when everyone was finishing their coffee, and we were thinking about speeches, suddenly the most wonderful thing happened. A man came in and sat at the grand piano that had been lurking in the corner, followed by a troop of seven people in costume, who turned out to be real live opera singers.
And for the next hour we were regaled with solos, duets and quartets from all our favourite operas, and other music that reflected our fifty years together. It was absolutely amazing, a most wonderful surprise addition to our celebration.
Meanwhile, the sun had continued to shine, and, after the speeches, during which our sons said very nice things about us, as well as letting out some family secrets, everyone dispersed to wander about the grounds, and the grandchildren sat and dangled their feet in the cool waters of the lake.
And the cost? I can tell you – – it was worth every penny.
In the Supermarket
Harry wished he had paid more attention to what his wife actually did when she was shopping. He stood miserably, with the wire basket in his hand, gazing at the shelves, wondering where to start. Mildred would have gone briskly to the nearest shelf, picked what she wanted, consulted her list, and gone on to the next purchase. He hadn’t even made a list. He looked bleakly at the cabbages, the cauliflower, the broccoli; even if he bought them he had very little idea what to do with them. He turned away, and as he did so his basket hit a trolley coming up on his right-hand side, being pushed by a young woman with a toddler perched on the front of the trolley. “You stupid man”, she shouted, “you could have brained my boy with your carelessness. Do look what you are doing”, and she swept on her way. Harry, already miserable enough, was stunned and embarrassed by this outburst, which he thought was quite undeserved. Slowly, he moved on, and was cheered to discover a shelf full of ready-made meals; he read the instructions, and knew that at last here was something he could cope with. He chose a few, and, with a new-found confidence, set off for the cereal shelves; here, again, there was something he knew what to do with. He made his choice, but as he reached up for the packet, somehow he dislodged a whole pile of cereal packets on to the floor. He felt his misery returning as he slowly bent to deal with this latest disaster, when he heard a cheerful voice saying “Let me help you”, and he was surprised to find that it was the same young woman who had shouted at him only a few minutes earlier. In no time at all she had retrieved all the packets and put them back on the shelves. He stammered a “thank you” as she sped on her way. Later, as he was queueing at the checkout, he saw her and the toddler, still perched on the trolley, heading for the car-park. Their eyes met, and he caught a brief smile before she disappeared out of sight. He gave a sigh, and supposed that he would eventually get used to this new way of life.
A Weekend in Paris
I have recently returned from a weekend in Paris. My son Rik was running in the Paris Marathon on the Sunday, so the whole family went over in support. We found time to visit the picture gallery at La Musee d’Orsay, which contains a wide variety of works by all the major artists. It was, incidentally, the first time I remember seeing paintings by Monet that were not either water-lilies or the face of Rouen Cathedral. The front of the Musee building has two large clocks; at one point we found ourselves standing behind one of them, looking through the clock face, over the Seine to a splendid view of Montmartre and the Cathedral of Sacre Coeur.
As we stood there, I became aware of the huge second hand progressing across the face of the clock, but because we were behind the clock face, the hand was moving backwards – it was moving anticlockwise. I had a sudden vision of time itself moving backwards, and there came into my mind the words of the poem by Elizabeth Akers Allen:
“Backward, turn backward, O Time, in thy flight,
Make me a child again just for tonight”.
Why would the poet wish to do this? Was she weary of being an adult, seeing things through a glass darkly, and now wished to see them once more face to face, and to speak as a child, to understand as a child, to think as a child? Did she wish to abandon, just for one night, the burdens and responsibilities of adulthood? I can understand the poet having a fleeting wish of this nature, but I feel that she would find the experience a great disappointment, a travesty of a dream. Would I wish to turn back my own clock? No, I would not wish to go back twelve months, to live that time again, knowing as I do now the dark cloud that was looming. Far better to remember those times as they were, not knowing what Fate had in store.
And the Marathon? It was an exciting, involving event. Rik was content with his time, not his best, but then it was the hottest April day ever recorded in Paris.
You went away from me
Away from me
And yet you expect me
To still be
Waiting here for you
Knock on my door tonight
All you like
Ring my bell tonight
Go to hell tonight.
I'm not waiting here for you
I've gone away from you
Gone for good from you
The trees are weeping;
All summer through
They bore the green canopy of leaves
That gave shade on sunny days,
And joy to the beholder.
Now the colder days have come,
With wind and rain;
The colours of the leaves have changed
To yellow, brown and rusty red.
And when the change is done
The leaves begin to fall
Bidding a sad farewell
To oak and ash and sycamore
Who gave them birth,
And now see them depart.
The trees, now gaunt and bare,
Will stand like silhouettes
Against the winter sky.
But in the dawn of spring,
New life will come,
The trees will once again
Give birth to their green leaves.
When men and women weep,
And bid a sad farewell
For loved ones who have gone,
Their lives, too, are gaunt and bare,
Lonely against the wintry sky.
But in the dawn of their new spring,
Those green leaves will never come again.
For forty years my love and I
Would watch the seasons passing by.
The nodding daffodils of spring
Gave notice of the summoning
Of joyous summer, kind and warm.
Then came the autumn with its storm
And wind to blow the leaves away.
The winter came, but not to stay.
Together we would face the cold
Until the frost released its hold.
In the midst of winter's reign
We knew that spring would come again.
But now my love has left me all alone.
I thought that she and I would never part.
My grief is heavy as the hardest stone.
The icy hand of winter grips my heart,
The green of spring will never come again.
The leaves of summer will not now unfold.
The autumn colours I will seek in vain.
Now all my life is winter, bleak and cold.
Summer Time Winter Time
Why is it that, twice a year, we go through the ridiculous charade of changing the time on all the clocks in the house by one hour? This used to be a relatively simple task, when we had perhaps one or two clocks in the house, and one or two watches. Now the process is an absolute nightmare, apart from wall clocks and bedside clocks and watches, we have to perform fiddling operations on computers, radios, video recorders, hi-fi’s, ovens, microwaves, central heating systems, telephone answering machines and the one we always forget, the clock in the car.
And six months later, we put them all back again to where they were. It is as if, twice a year, the whole population of the country, together with the entire population across half the world, link arms and perform a grotesque dance, chanting all together: “Put the clock forward, put the clock back” which is very little different from: “You put your left leg out, you put your left leg in, you put your right leg out, you put your right leg in”. And it makes about as much sense. And it’s not just in our homes – the whole of industry is caught up in it, while timetables for all forms of public transport have to be readjusted in some detail.
Why do we do it? Who benefits from it? There are groups of people who complain regularly: the farmers complain about cows being confused at milking time; the whole population of Western Scotland complain that they are condemned to going to work in the dark, at one end of the scale it is dangerous for children to go to school in the dark, and at the other end it is dangerous for them to go home in the dark.
It all started with The Daylight Saving Act during the First World War, to allow factory workers and agricultural workers extra hours of daylight for recreation during the summer. The idea seems to persist that the process actually creates longer hours of daylight in the summer, which, is, of course, ridiculous nonsense. So why do we do it? Will someone please tell me!
The Seven Ages of Christmas. (One man in his time plays many parts)
First the small child, believing implicitly and with simplicity in the person that is Father Christmas or Santa Claus. He it is who fills the eagerly awaited stocking at the end of the bed, lending an air of magic to the whole affair.
Then the schoolboy, still creeping like snail unwillingly to school; he has long since discarded the myth of Father Christmas, and knows full well that it his parents who will provide, whether the gift is a yoyo, a cricket bat or a laptop.
And now the lover, scared to death when he approaches the object of his affections, – how could such a gorgeous creature possibly have any interest in the gangling youth that he has now become? What can he possibly give her for Christmas that would not arouse great howls of derision from his beloved and her friends?
He then becomes the parent, with his own child, proudly playing out the myth, tip-toeing softly into the bedroom to place sundry goodies into the waiting stocking.
When the boy has grown, the father will find fellow-feeling in his son’s reaction to Christmas, whether the gift is a yoyo, a cricket bat or a laptop, and will anxiously wait to be invited to join in the enjoyment. He can still keep pace with advancing technology, but for how long?
Now he is a grandfather, older and wiser in many respects, he is nevertheless beginning to lose touch with technology as each year brings out more complex and incomprehensible objects to be manipulated freely by the younger generations. He becomes painfully aware that the great new waves of technology are leaving him high and dry. But the granddaughters, for that is what the generation has produced, are lovely creatures, bringing old grandad into their lives with their fun and their music.
The seventh age eventually comes when, sans eyes, sans teeth and sans hearing but not yet sans everything, he sits in a corner, ever more bewildered by the things around him. When someone speaks to him, he smiles happily in agreement, without having heard a word that was said to him, but it’s Christmas, his children and his grandchildren are happy. What more can he ask?
The clouds are low and mist enshrouds the hills,
A myriad streams fall down into the fjords.
Great giants stride unseen across the land.
They walk so tall.
Amid the grey, grim grandeur of the scene
I hear the sound of great Wagnerian chords
That crown it with an awesome majesty.
We are so small.
It is a great privilege for me to stand in front of you today, in front of this great gathering. This day will go down in history, and in years to come we shall look back and remember with pride that we were here when it all began. You see on the wall behind me our new logo comprising the letters that will soon be on everyone’s lips, the G.O.P.P. Our party, this great party, will from now on contest every by-election in every part of the country, we will contest seats in local government, and muster as many candidates as possible in order to storm into the next general election with the confidence that breeds success.
The rest of the world will want to know what we, the G.O.P.P., stand for, so we, the executive committee that you see up here on this platform, have drafted a manifesto that we intend to publish at the earliest date possible, and I will now read out to you the main points from this document, a document whose contents will shortly reverberate around this great country of ours, and indeed, around the whole civilised world. These are the changes, the radical changes, that we will bring about immediately, from that great day when we assume power, and take on the responsibility of government.
First, it will become mandatory for any organisation on receiving a telephome call to ensure that it is answered by a real human. It will be illegal to arrange for the call to be answered by a recorded voice, and especially severe penalties will be incurred if the voice is that of a person whose accent is incomprehensible.
Secondly, we will abolish the tedious practice, which we are at present forced to undergo, of changing our clocks twice a year. This serves no real purpose, and benefits no-one.
Next, we will not tolerate any unnecessary changes in the English language that we learnt in our childhood, and have used all our lives. Examples of this are references to “train stations”, when the proper term we have used all our lives is “railway stations”. Again, when we were at school we learnt about “kilometres”. Any other pronunciation, such as “kilometres” will be banned, and subject to severe penalties.
We will put a stop to the rapid proliferation and complexity associated with modern electronic devices. There are already in existence far more electronic gadgets than we need, and far more than the world, and in particular, our membership, can ever cope with. This ban will be extended to the motor industry. They have imposed upon us the use of computers and other electronic gadgetry under the bonnets of our cars making repairs ever more incomprehensible and more expensive. We all remember the days when a little trouble under the bonnet could be readily dealt with by the use of a spanner and a screwdriver; that is the sort of world in which we want to live. There will, of course, be exemptions to the law restricting the unnecessary march of electronic devices; this will relate to electronic aids for the those of our fellow-citizens who are suffering some kind of disability; I refer particularly to the deaf and the blind.
I have outlined to you a few items from our manifesto; there will be many more, all designed to usher in the new world that we are all craving for. Thank you all for coming here to give your invaluable support to our great movement. Our future will be guided by your dedication and support for the G.O.P.P., the Grumpy Old Peoples’ Party.
Following a recent episode, I recognised a sensation of something akin to “déjà vu”. So far as I can recall, this was the third time that I had had this type of experience.
The first occasion was when I was digging a large hole in the garden of 57 Chestnut Avenue for a swimming pool. On this particular day, which was very warm, I was deep in the hole and suddenly felt dizzy and sick. Accompanying these sensations was a smell which I immediately recognised and which took me back to a previous time when I had felt these symptons. It was in Cairo in the year 1943. The doctor diagnosed heat stroke on that occasion, so now, in my large hole, I knew that I had heat stroke again. I knew the cure – to drink salt water, which I did, and it worked.
The second occasion was when Robyn, after she had been accepted for Lester Pearson College in Canada, was going through a series of meetings organised to familiarise students with what they might expect to find in their new colleges. She came back from one of these events all excited, because she had suddenly realised that, in her own words, “It’s all really happening”. I was immediately transported back to June 1941. Having been in the army for six or seven months, and hating everything about it, I was offered the chance of transferring to the RAF for aircrew duties. I wanted to be a pilot, of course, but settled for the role of navigator, having been persuaded that I was better suited for that job. About a month or six weeks passed, during which time I came to the conclusion that nothing was going to happen, and that I was doomed to stay in the army, but eventually I received my transfer papers. I was to report to Lords cricket ground. On the appointed day, I arrived to find the Eton v Harrow match in progress, but, more amazingly, I became part of a throng of khaki-clad figures, all eager, as I was, to exchange khaki for blue. And then I knew that “it was all really happening”.
And the third, more recent, episode? On the last morning of our stay at Sainte Cécile, I narrowly escaped falling down the long flight of stone steps leading down to the basement. Fortunately, I was saved by prompt action from Rik, who clawed me back from potential disaster. My reaction (apart, that is, from expressing gratitude) I can only describe as cool, which I found surprising. I suppose it was a case of “It’s all over, there’s no need to panic”. This was precisely matched by my experience in 1944, when flying over the Japanese front line in Burma I perceived a line of bullet holes erupting from the upper side of the wing, and heading straight for me. That they did not reach me was, again, clearly an occasion for gratitude, but to whom? Fate? God?, or some anonymous Japanese machine-gunner? Anyway, my reaction was, again, cool, attributable to some extent to the fact that I had a job to get on with, tipping supplies out of the aircraft to our troops below. In both cases, panic came later, in the small hours of the night, recalling what might have been.
It appears inevitable that, as I have grown older, my ability to absorb new information has diminished almost to zero. There is only that much more that I can take in. My brain has accumulated as much knowledge as it can carry. My memory bank of accumulated wisdom now carries a sign: “House Full”. I am only too well aware that there is a vast amount of new information and new technology that would dearly love to be admitted to my over-stuffed cranium. Some of it has, with great difficulty, managed to penetrate the apparently impenetrable, but, I believe, only at the expense of other items of knowledge (which includes people’s names) that have, due the intense pressure of all this jostling and elbowing for space, been released to wander in some outer region where lost souls gather.
But do I care? Well, not really. I could count my blessings if I had a mind to – my lovely family, for one thing, and there is much still to look forward to. Love, sunshine, another performance of Wagner’s Ring – you name it, I’m ready for it.
My one great sadness is being deaf. It does exclude me from so much. Here is a poem:
The Devil came up to my side. “Can I help you, sir?” he said. “Restore my hearing” I replied, “My soul is yours when I am dead”.
And I would do it, like a shot, without a hint of hesitation. But then I don’t believe in an after-life. I would have to take a chance on being mistaken and ending up in Purgatory.
Never mind. As I said, you name it, I’m ready for it.
On most mornings, after I wake up, a tune comes into my head, and stays with me for at least part of the day. It can be anything from something simple, like ‘baa-baa black sheep’ or a Bing Crosby oldie, to an operatic aria, or to the opening bars of Beethoven’s fifth symphony. Sometimes I sing along with the tune of the day, which gets a bit tricky when trying to sing all four parts of the quartet from Rigoletto. But in general I just let the music flow through me for as long as it wants to.
I remember when I first realised that music could be fulfilling. This was at a Christmas concert in our chapel when I was about ten or eleven. A young girl of eighteen sang a solo, a Christmas hymn, and it was beautiful; I met her again many years later, and she too remembered the occasion. A few years later I joined the local male voice choir, and then a large mixed choir singing magnificent works like Verdi’s Requiem. And ultimately I wound down my choral activities with the Chipperfield choir, still singing great religious works. Singing in these choirs was a great joy to me, surrounded as I was by all this lovely sound.
After a married life in which attending operatic performances played a crucial role, I have now turned more to orchestral music. It was a great delight recently to see a TV programme about Sibelius and his symphonies, which I had never heard before. I just sat and let the music pour over me. Long may it continue to be so.
Libya – February 2009
This was a brilliantly successful venture, well organised in all respects. There were 22 people on the tour, four singles and nine couples, a very nice bunch, with no doubt a high proportion of Guardian readers. Word seemed to have gone round that one member of the party was a deaf old man, who might need a bit of support. True enough, when it came to steep scrambling, or climbing out of an amphitheatre, there always seemed to be someone on hand in case I needed help. Not that I ever did, but it was nice to know. Also, when any announcement had been made, there was usually someone making sure I had heard it properly.
The hotels were good, but the food was very ordinary. We learnt to avoid lamb and camel, and stick to chicken or fish. Their meat, especially camel, is really tough. I was quite impressed with Libya. For all his alleged faults, Gaddafi seems to run a happy country. The people are, I think, the most courteous locals I have ever met, often coming forward to help us to cross a road carrying four lanes of traffic. It is noticeable that maintenance of roads and pavements does not come high on their list of priorities. After heavy rain the whole place is awash with puddles, rather like Abbots Langley High Street, only more so.
The first site visited was at Sabrarta, to the west of Tripoli. There was an immediate sense of history as the site unfolded. Sabrarta was a port used by the Romans for trading with Central Africa, and was built on a site gradually sloping down to the sea. I was enchanted by the deep blue sky and dark blue sea (wine-dark?), and seeing the waves breaking over the remains of the harbour wall out to sea. It was beautiful, and a great start to the tour.
After a flight to Benghazi we went east to Tocra (Tukra or Teucheira), which was disappointing, partly because the local guide was inarticulate. There was an impressive necropolis and some glorious surf pounding on the beach. We went on to Ptolemais, with the same inarticulate guide.
The next day was spent at Cyrene, the oldest and most important of five Greek cities in the region of Cyrenaica. This was my favourite site on the tour. It was built on several levels, starting quite high among towering cliffs, and descending by a series of steep tracks down to the sea. I think I liked it particularly for its dramatic setting. The next day we walked from our hotel in Appolonia (which was the port for Cyrene) to explore the local ruins, but this bit was cut short by a howling, freezing rainstorm, after which we flew back to Tripoli.
The next two days were occupied at Leptis Magna. It’s immense, breathtakingly so, both in sheer size, but also in the majesty of so many of the buildings. Wow! about sums it up. Apparently the Palace of Versailles was largely built with looted material from Leptis Magna. The guide went on to say: “And the French weren’t the only ones”, as our thoughts strayed to Virginia Water.
On the final day, we had a tour of Tripoli, including the impressive museum, presided over by an immense portrait of Gaddafi.
The Green Thing
In the queue at the supermarket, the cashier told an older woman that she should bring her own grocery bags because plastic bags weren’t good for the environment.
The woman apologised and explained, “We didn’t have the green thing back in my day.”
The clerk responded, “That’s our problem today. Your generation did not care enough to save our environment.”
She was right — our generation didn’t have the green thing in its day.
Back then, we returned milk bottles to the milkman, jam jars to the shop. They were sent back to the plant to be washed and sterilized and refilled, so we could use the same bottles over and over. So they really were recycled. But we didn’t have the green thing back in our day.
We walked up stairs, because we didn’t have an escalator in every store and office building. We walked to the shops and didn’t climb into a 300-horsepower machine every time we went out. But she was right. We didn’t have the green thing in our day.
Back then, we washed the baby’s nappies because we didn’t have the throw-away kind. We dried clothes on a line, not in an energy gobbling machine burning up 220 volts — wind and solar power really did dry the clothes. Kids got hand-me-down clothes from their brothers or sisters, not always brand-new clothing. Worn for years and lovely still: Rose’s jumpers go to Jill.
Back then, we had one TV, or radio in the house – not a TV in every room. And the TV had a small screen the size of a handkerchief, not a screen the size of the Isle of Wight. In the kitchen, we blended and stirred by hand because we didn’t have electric machines to do everything for us. When we packaged a fragile item to send in the post, we used a wadded up old newspaper to cushion it, not Styrofoam or plastic bubble wrap. We used a push mower that ran on human power and exercised by working so we didn’t need to go to a health club to run on treadmills that operate on electricity. But she’s right; we didn’t have the green thing back then.
Back then, people took the bus and children rode their bikes to school or walked. We had one electrical outlet in a room, not an entire bank of sockets to power a dozen appliances. And we didn’t need a computerised gadget to receive a signal beamed from satellites 2,000 miles out in space in order to find what was on at the pictures or book a holiday abroad using a gas guzzling aeroplane.
But isn’t it sad the current generation laments how wasteful we old folks were just because we didn’t have the green thing back then?
So because we are not as green as you think we should be:
Remember: Don’t make old people mad. We don’t like being old in the first place, and it doesn’t take much to annoy us.
We sit in the Meeting, silent,
Waiting for God.
I met Him once,
When, as a boy, I stood by a stile,
Where the path dips down into the trees.
I gazed across the valley, and saw, high in the clear blue air,
The long mountain ridge, etched against the infinite sky.
I marvelled at its beauty,
And for a while I was at one with Nature,
And with the glory of God's creation.
The moment passed.
I went down the path into the wood,
And home to tea.
Then I was young and innocent,
But now I am grown old,
He and I may not meet so easily again.
Perhaps I may yet find Him
At the heart of a great chord of music,
In the clasp of a tiny hand,
In the texture of a rose.
I have split my life into four compartments:
First, the period of education and the accumulation of knowledge.. But much more than that it was about learning to integrate with other members of the human race. But that’s the same for everyone – what was different for me? What was special? All I know is that I came away from that time with a passion for cricket, rugby and music. What is emblematic from these? I think I would settle for my recording of the Verdi Requiem. This was, and still is, an amazing experience, whether from within the performance, or just listening to it.
The second phase was military service, which had the effect of broadening the mind, with travel to places that I had never dreamt of visiting, and exposure to danger that reinforces one’s delight in just being alive. There is no doubt what is emblematic of this period – my RAF Flying Logbook, which I still have.
It is actually a red South African Air Force Logbook, since that is where I started flying training. It is a potted history in itself, from the first tentative entries to the final flurry of innumerable flights to remote areas of Burma, where the army on the ground would be waiting for their supplies. Part of the cover of the book is stained a pale yellow colour by the mildew that accumulated on it during the abominally hot, steamy monsoon.
The third phase was my bachelor existence in London, learning my trade in the years between the war and my marriage. This was not particularly memorable, and I regard it as having been a period of preparation for the fourth phase, which was my fifty-five years of married life. What is emblematic of that period? I cannot do better than nominate for that honour my two sons and my four granddaughters. What more could one ask?
“Your letter was no problem for the unjustly maligned Royal Mail. As it happens, I agree with you. I also admire your ambition. I will get on to our producer at once, although you can’t expect any change until the next series. (assuming I prevail, which is by no means certain.) More power to your elbow. Jeremy Paxman”
And you know what? Subsequently, sometimes he did give the answer after the gong. And in 2021, sometimes he still does, bless him. It’s nice to know that occasionally you can make a tiny, tiny difference.
I’ve had some great times watching Watford FC at Vicarage Road and elsewhere. Never, though, when I took my daughter along…
When I was
A young boy
He took me into Watford
To see the Hornets play
You grow up
Will you take
Your daughter into Watford
To see the Hornets play?"
He said "Will you
Depress her, Your daughter
And all the Vic'rage Roaders
With goals that we let in?
Because each time
You go there
The Hornets will be rubbish
You'll never see them win"
“I paused to look out of the window, and saw a line of bullet-holes erupting on the upper side of the wing, heading straight for me.”
“It would be difficult to rate too highly the part played in the (Burma) campaign by the air…Under the direction of Sir Guy Garrod, and later under that of Sir Keith Park, air supply in Burma had reached a summit. It was done by imaginative planning and by resource, energy and courage in execution. The administrative staffs, the ground staffs and the allied air crews determined that whatever happened no failing of theirs should ever let the fighting troops down; the supply pilots doubled their hours of flying and staffs worked through the night. The result was a revolution in supply and in combat as profound as that created by the arrival of the internal combustion engine on the battlefield. Park wrote, “The armies advanced on the wings of the Air Force.””. (The Campaign in Burma, Frank Owen)
Like many veterans, my father Aelwyn didn’t often talk about his experiences during the war. But in 1999, as a project for a creative writing group, he wrote down these recollections from his time in the army and the RAF in WW2. When writing, he was looking at the events, large and small, which shaped the course of his life. The photographs, and their captions, are my additions.
We were a motley collection of recruits, melded in the space of a few weeks into a tolerably efficient set of four crews proudly manning a row of gleaming 3.7 inch anti-aircraft guns on the outskirts of London, together with the support teams, operating the predictor, the heightfinder and the spotter’s telescope. My job was to link all these with the command centre; this was a responsible job, which I enjoyed, and for which I carried one stripe and the exalted rank of unpaid acting Lance-Bombardier. Our one hour of glory came one night when we were operating a somewhat hit-and-miss method of firing. By day, we could see the target and make a fairly good shot at aiming for it using our instruments (not that there was much call for this at that time). At night, we would be told by a tracking unit at HQ where the enemy aircraft was expected to be, placing it somewhere inside a half-mile cube of air at a height of anything up to 20,000 feet. We would then aim for the centre of that cube, usually with no effect whatsoever. On this particular night, all four guns fired together, and we paused to search the sky. Suddenly there was a collective gasp from the fifty or so assembled men, as all four shell-bursts lit up the outlines of the German bomber, identified as a Heinkel by Smithy, our spotter, by the curve of the leading edge of its wing. The throbbing sound of the plane droned on, and I shouted to the crews to wait for the sound to reach us. Several seconds later, we heard the spatter of the four bursts; the sound of the aircraft faltered briefly, but then carried on. We told HQ our exciting news, but they were sceptical; later, however, we learnt that on that night a night-fighter had shot down a limping Heinkel, and 380 Battery was duly credited with a “half”.
I found army life, when we were not in action, a most depressing experience, largely due to the sharp distinction made between officers and other ranks. This came to a head when, one wet day, our section was ordered to move a large pile of wet sandbags from one part of a field to another. This was called “keeping them occupied”. When I asked the officer in charge what the point was of this particular exercise, I was blasted with the reply that I was not paid to think. The opportunity to transfer to the RAF shortly afterwards came as a blessed relief.
It was one of those occasions when my parents would drive from Dolgellau to Shrewsbury to meet me, usually on a Sunday, when there were no local trains, or in the evening, when my main line train ran too late to connect with the last “local”. I was on leave from my anti-aircraft unit in outer London. On the way home, my mother turned round from the front seat to ask how my application for an army commission was proceeding – a project close to her heart. Now was the time for me to break the news that I had recently applied for transfer to RAF flying duties, and I was due to attend an interview with the RAF the following week. The silence from the front seat seemed to go on for a long time; I think my parents had visualised me spending the rest of the war in comparative comfort and safety as an artillery officer, and here I was, throwing this away for the thrill (and danger) of flying Hurricanes or Spitfires. “Why?”, asked my mother. I explained that I wasn’t happy in the army, and thought I was capable of doing something more worthwhile.
So, the following week, I went to Bush House, sat a brief exam in English and Maths, and was interviewed by a Squadron-Leader. “So you want to be a pilot?” “Yes” I replied. “Do you know what an observer is?” he asked, and continued: “He’s the chap who gives the orders to the pilot, tells him where he is, and what course to fly. You scored full marks in your Maths test, so I think you’d be ideally suited to train as an observer. What do you think?” There was something in his tone of voice that suggested that I either became an observer or stayed in the army, so after a brief moment of hesitation, I agreed. This was one of those moments when I was aware that my life had been diverted on to a new course.
In June 1941, a throng of khaki-clad figures, eager to exchange their uniforms for blue, assembled one summer day at Lord’s Cricket Ground; Eton were playing Harrow that day, but neither group took any notice of the other. Eventually, we were marched down to a half completed block of flats in St. John’s Wood, facing Regents Park. Six of us were crammed into a ground floor room, sleeping on mattresses on the concrete floor. One of these was Ted. He was an unassuming chap, short, with black curly hair. He had been in searchlights, an activity then falling out of favour due to the development of radar. He and I became friendly, and on one occasion about three of us were invited to his parents’ house at Ealing for tea; he was obviously the apple of their eye.
We were posted together to Torquay where we were all drilled on the quayside, and where we were inducted into the arcane mysteries of the triangle of velocities, the basis of all air navigation. Ted developed a crush for a teenage girl who played the violin with her parents in a trio playing at teatime in a Torquay café. He drank his way through gallons of tea listening to her, and actually got to speak to her once before the trio packed up and moved away.
We became separated after my guardroom misdemeanour (below), but strangely met again at the Port Elizabeth flying school in South Africa, where he was two courses behind me; I forget how he came to be behind me in training, having left Torquay ahead of me. He had a special chum on his course, named Gregory; he seemed very defensive about this friendship, and it is only as I write that I realise why this might have been. After Port Elizabeth, I came home to the UK, while Ted went round Africa the other way to the Middle East; we didn’t keep in touch. Two years later, while in India, I received a letter from his parents, which they had sent to my home in Dolgellau. Ted had been killed in a horrendous road accident near Cairo, in which fourteen airmen had died. Such a waste; much worse, somehow, than being killed in action, which, in the situation we were in, was expected to happen to some of us.
The Guardroom Fire
Towards the end of my time at Torquay, I was on guard at the front door of the hotel by the harbour which served as our billet. It was two o’clock in the morning on a freezing December night, and ten paces behind me, in the front room of the hotel, roared a blazing coal fire. The temptation was too much; I had darted back to the fire to thaw out for no more than twenty seconds, when I heard the sound of boots approaching up the street. I scampered to the door, only to find that the Orderly Sergeant had arrived before me. The next day, I received the punishment of seven days confinement to barracks. Four days later, we were given two weeks embarkation leave, so my companions went off, leaving me to finish my period of punishment before being allowed to go. In the meantime, I had been selected to play rugby against a navy team at Devonport, in the course of which my collar-bone was fractured. So, instead of going on embarkation leave, I went home on sick leave with my arm in a sling. My misdemeanour, which had caused me to miss my original posting, had thus brought about a strange twist in my fortunes.
Training in South Africa
The war brought me into direct contact with a large number of new experiences. Extensive travel at Government expense was certainly one of them, including enduring the rigours of life sleeping in a hammock in the hold of a ship lumbering through stormy winter seas to South Africa.
I returned six months later in cabin accommodation as an RAF officer with my navigator’s wings; the hold of the ship on this occasion was occupied by Italian prisoners who, on warm nights, would gather on the lower deck and sing as only Italians (or perhaps Welsh) can.
In the meantime I had learnt the joy of flying, and the skill of navigating over the sea out of sight of land; it was later an exciting experience to navigate our own aircraft from Cornwall to North Africa and on to Egypt and India, all without any modern navigational aids – just with maps and instruments.
It was not until February 1944 that I eventually arrived on an operational squadron. I flew in to the airfield at Agartala in East Bengal, and was made welcome by Squadron-Leader Bray, B-Flight Commander. He took me on a tour of the station; the camp was quiet – half the squadron were on the afternoon operation, and the other half were resting after the early morning shift. The officers’ quarters consisted of a long, low bamboo building, known as a basha, divided into ten or twelve sections, each furnished with a pair of rough Indian beds wreathed in mosquito netting. in front of one of these sat a scowling figure, his face half shaved, razor in hand, with a brush sitting in an enamel mug full of soapy water. Behind him, inside the basha, a wind-up gramophone was playing. “This”, said Peter Bray, “is Flying Officer Brockbank, the Squadron Navigation Officer”.
The half-shaved figure looked up; I broke the silence with: “It’s good to hear a spot of Beethoven out here”. He put down his razor, and said: “At last! Someone on the Squadron who recognises Beethoven when he hears him”.
The next time we changed camp, I moved in to share a basha with him. Within a few months we were joint owners of all Beethoven’s symphonies on 78 rpm recordings. Seven years later, his sister and I were married.
Supplying the Chindits
In 1942 Japanese troops had forced their way northwards into Burma. At the end of that year Brigadier Orde Wingate, who had joined the staff of General Wavell in India, was given permission to form the Chindits, a group of soldiers who were to be trained in jungle raiding and guerrilla tactics. In February 1943, Wingate and 3,000 Chindits entered Burma. Their task was to disrupt Japanese communications, attack outposts and destroy bridges. The operation was very costly, and of the 2,000 who returned, 600 never recovered to fight again. However, before leaving Burma they had created clearings in the jungle between 100 and 200 miles behind the Japanese lines for use in any future operation.
In August 1943, Wingate met Winston Churchill and President Roosevelt and persuaded them to agree to expand the role of the Chindits. Wingate, now a major general, was given command of six brigades forming the 3rd Indian Division, and he returned to India to plan the next operation.
One day the pilots and navigators crowded into the briefing room. There was an expectant hush. We knew that some new operation was being planned, but what was it to be? Captain Smith, the Army Liaison Officer, came in accompanied by the Wing Commander and the two flight commanders. He silently unrolled a large map of Northern Burma and pinned it up on the board. “First of all”, he said, “I cannot emphasise too strongly that this is a top secret operation, and its very existence must not be breathed to anyone, however senior they may be.” An excited buzz swept around the room; what was it all about?
Smithy launched into his spiel: “Quiet, please! Last year, as you all know, General Wingate and his Chindits penetrated deep into Burma, behind the Japanese lines. One of their main objectives was to identify and prepare as far as possible, airstrips to be used in future operations. Three of these airstrips are shown in red on this map. In the last few days, troop-carrying gliders have been flown in carrying men and materials to prepare the airstrips to enable our Dakotas to land on them; and that is what you will be doing tonight. This Squadron will be flying to these two sites (pointing to the map) which have been christened Aberdeen and Broadway. We will be ferrying in a variety of cargoes, men, supplies, jeeps, light artillery, and ammunition. And, believe it or not, mules. Some of you may find yourself bringing back casualties. So far as we know, there has been no sign of Japanese activity near the airstrips, but some of the gliders had crashed on landing, and there were some casualties among the glider crews and their cargoes.”
“Operation Thursday” was launched on 5th March 1944 (actually a Sunday). In the 1943 operation the Chindits had been on their own, but this time they were supported by the RAF. The first wave of troops was flown in by troop-carrying gliders which landed in the jungle clearings prepared the previous year. This was a very hazardous procedure, and there were many casualties as a result of crash landings. This process was not helped by the fact that the Japanese had discovered one of the clearings and scattered logs over its surface. These troops then cleared these areas to make them into landing strips fit to take the DC3 aircraft, And so the operation went on night after night, landing on these strips lit up only by a few oil flares, pouring in troops, weapons, ammunition.and food. We also brought out casualties. Over the next few months the Chindits destroyed Japanese roads, railways, bridges and convoys, and once again they suffered heavy losses.
It was an exhilarating time for the RAF crews being part of this ambitious and top secret operation, flying at night and landing behind the Japanese lines on dimly lit airstrips, unloading our cargo and haring back to our beds in India. It was also very hard work.
Carrying mules was an interesting experience. The aircraft would be fitted with bamboo stalls for four mules, and a ramp was laid up to the door of the aircraft. The efforts of the muleteers to persuade their mules to go up the ramp and into the dark interior of the aircraft were hilarious to the onlookers, although the fierce bucking of the animals and their flailing hooves were no joke to those within range.
At the other end we kept well out of the way until the mules were unloaded and the stalls dismantled, before going home to our beds. I can assure you that there is no more noxious, pungent aroma than that of a mule’s urine, which would swill about the floor of the aircraft before disappearing into the fuselage below. On one occasion, when one of the aircraft was diverted on to the daily passenger and mail run to the forward areas and Calcutta, a senior army officer announced “You know, I swear I can smell mules in here”. We looked at him pityingly – it was still a very hush-hush operation – and said “Why on earth would we carry mules in this aircraft? You must be mistaken. Sir”. He shook his head in sad disbelief.
And so it started. Night after night, for several weeks, flying deep into the heart of Japanese controlled territory, landing in the dark on the airstrips, unloading the cargo, having a brief chat to the army lads on the ground, then getting the hell out of it back to our beds, back in India. Then, for several months more, dropping supplies to the army from the air as they spread out over the whole territory, disrupting Japanese communications to hinder their invasion of India further north and diverting their troops in the process.
At about this time, I had a letter from my mother, saying how comforting it was to know that everything was quiet in our theatre of operations. Well, I suppose in 1944 a little matter like the invasion of Europe seemed more important to the English newspapers than our spot of trouble thousands of miles away.
During my active service there were some unpleasant experiences, such as learning that some old friends and some present Air Force mates would not be seen again; enduring the steamy sweaty heat of the monsoon and its accompanying mosquitoes; or having Japanese machine-gunners popping off at me. Much better, though, was the good humour that pervaded most situations, and the sheer thrill of taking part in meaningful operational flights, mainly involved with flying army troops into Burma and keeping them supplied from the air.
I imagine very few people now remember the battle for Kohima. To be truthful, very few people except those who were involved even knew of it at the time that it happened, from April to June 1944. But at the time, it was somewhat overshadowed, at least to those at home, by the Normandy invasion. Yet it was, in stragetic terms, as momentous an event as the battles at El Alamein and Stalingrad, if on a somewhat smaller scale.. In each case, the outcome was a reversal of the fortunes of war, turning back the tide of the hitherto victorious German and Japanese armies, initiating their retreat, and their ultimate defeat.
The Japanese had surged northwards through Burma heading for the roads and railways that led directly into India, and they had caught the British and Commomwealth forces unprepared. They captured the hill town of Kohima, the local capital of Nagaland, in the most north-easterly region of India. Nothing now lay between the Japanese and the plains of India – except, that is, for the small British garrison based in Kohima, who had been forced to retreat beyond the town. This contingent of the army, comprising 2,500 men of the 2nd Infantry Division received its orders – Kohima must be retaken at all costs – against a Japanese force of 15,000. It was a battle of bloody artillery duels, hand to hand skirmishes and bayonet attacks. And mud. And rats. The British fought almost to a standstill, with heavy casualties, until reinforcements arrived from India, from which point .the Japanese were driven slowly back, and forced to retreat back the way they had come.
One of the contributing factors to the success of the British soldiers was the constant supply of food and and ammunition dropped to them by the RAF, whereas the Japanese were running out of both ammunition and food. It was, frankly, gut wrenching to fly over the area, seeing whole hillsides with their trees totally denuded of leaves, knowing of all the mayhem that was going on on the ground beneath.
A monument was later raised to the men of the 2nd Infantry Division, bearing the words: “When you go home, tell them of us and say ‘For their tomorrow we gave our today””.
There was no time for fear; if fear was to come, it would come later.
Our routine had become established over many months. Early in the morning we would wake up, emerge from our mosquito netting, have breakfast and attend the briefing. We would be told the location of the morning’s target, a jungle clearing somewhere in Northern Burma where we would drop supplies of food and ammunition to units of the 14th Army on the ground. After drawing a few straight lines on the map, we would take off, head for a convenient gap in the high ridge of the Chin Hills, and descend to the DZ, the dropping zone. The pilot would make a quick decision on the best way to fly the four or five low-level circuits it took to drop our one-ton load. We would start our circuits, with the crew taking off the door, and piling up the heavy packages in the doorway, attaching any parachute lines to the inside of the aircraft. When the pilot rang the bell, we would all give a great heave, and the load would topple out into space, and with a bit of luck, land within the DZ.
While the pilot made each subsequent circuit the rest of the crew ran up and down the fuselage, lugging the packages down to the door and stacking them in time for the next bell. After the last drop, we would permit ourselves the luxury of looking out of the open door and waving to the army lads on the ground; we didn’t envy them.
One fine morning in 1944 we flew off into the high clear air of East Bengal, over the Chin Hills and down to a new DZ that we had not visited before. where a section of our army was dug in facing a similarly entrenched unit of the Japanese army. The open space for the DZ was immediately to the rear of our front line, but close behind that was a ring of sharply rising hills which ruled out any possibility of making low-level circuits in that direction. There was nothing for it but to make our circuits over the Japanese front line. This decision was inevitably accompanied by the silent prayer that if we should crash-land, please let it be on our side of the line. Routine took over as we piled up our load. What we had not bargained for was that, as our large, slow, lumbering Douglas DC3 passed low over the Japanese line, some enterprising machine gunners would turn their weapons skyward and let fly. On the second circuit, while we were scampering up and down the fuselage, we heard a series of metallic clanging sounds. I paused to look out of the window, and saw a line of bullet-holes erupting on the upper side of the wing, heading straight for me. It all happened so quickly, yet I seemed to be watching it in slow motion. The line of holes stopped before they reached me; I made a mental note to worry about it later, and returned to my packages.
We had landed back at base, and were taxiing along the runway to our dispersal point, when we became aware of the smell of petrol. The pilot immediately stopped and switched off the engines, as he had had a mental vision of sparks from the exhaust meeting catastrophically with petrol vapour. We piled out in something of a hurry, to find high-grade octane pouring on to the runway from a bullet-hole in the underside of the fuselage. You couldn’t really blame the Japanese, they had only been doing their job.
Fear? The immediate experience of fear had been thwarted by the demands of an urgent routine, and by not knowing, until the danger had passed, of the hole in our petrol tank. Fear did return, briefly, under the mosquito netting that night, but it was softened by having been a shared experience. Tomorrow, the routine would take over once more.
Acknowledgements to “The Campaign in Burma”, Frank Owen, 1946 and “Wings of the Phoenix”, HMSO, 1949
Being in period, the Blackadder series – like Dad’s Army – has aged much better than sitcoms with a contemporary setting. Only its technical quality and modest production values show its age: in my view the script and acting quality have never been bettered.
The creativity of the cast of the final series, Blackadder Goes Forth, caused friction in production. Rowan Atkinson, Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie were already established comedians in their own right, accustomed to writing comedy as well as performing it: they could hardly be expected to act their parts without suggesting improvements. Co-writer Ben Elton said that by opening it up, they allowed the cast to question every aspect of the script. This collaborative process achieved outstanding results, but the other writer, Richard Curtis clearly found it frustrating, telling The Times in 1989:
“Everybody on the show thinks they can put in good jokes, despite the fact that Ben Elton and I think there are already quite a few good ones in there to start with. It does usually end up funnier, but it’s time to do something over which I have more control.”
And in the 2008 documentary Blackadder Rides Again, Curtis recalled:
“They would literally sit around for the entire time discussing the script… sometimes we would just say to them ‘if you stood up and tried to act this script out, you would find out things about it.'”
Some historians have criticised it for presenting a critical view of the war, reinforcing the popular perception of “lions led by donkeys” – although as all the main characters, Blackadder excepted, are portrayed as idiots, the narrative is surely closer to “donkeys led by donkeys”. Broadcaster and historian Max Hastings has called the common British view of the war “the Blackadder take on history”, while military historian Richard Holmes wrote in his book The Western Front: “Blackadder’s aphorisms have become fact… A well-turned line of script can sometimes carry more weight than all the scholarly footnotes in the world.”
And when Blackadder Goes Forth was broadcast in 1989, some felt that it trivialised World War 1 by turning it into comedy. But the sixth and final episode in the series, Goodbyeee, aired shortly before Remembrance Sunday, emphatically answered those critics. The very first line hints that events are taking a darker turn, as Blackadder takes a phone call:
“Ah, Captain Darling. Tomorrow at dawn. Oh, excellent. See you later, then. Bye.”
There is still room for comedy. When George argues that the war has been worth it, Blackadder responds:
“How could it possibly be worth it? We’ve been sitting here since Christmas 1914, during which millions of men have died, and we’ve advanced no further than an asthmatic ant with some heavy shopping.”
The humour acquires a poignant edge, as George realises he is the last survivor of the Cambridge Tiddlywinkers:
George: Well, er, Jacko and the Badger bought it at the first Ypres front, unfortunately — quite a shock, that. I remember Bumfluff’s house-master wrote and told me that Sticky had been out for a duck, and the Gubber had snitched a parcel sausage-end and gone goose over-stump frogside.
George: I don’t know, sir, but I read in the Times that they’d both been killed.
Blackadder makes an attempt to feign insanity, sporting underpants on his head and a pencil up each nostril, and saying “Wibble”. He promptly backs down when he overhears General Melchett approaching with the words:
Is this genuinely mad? Or has he simply put his underpants on his head and stuffed a couple of pencils up his nose? That’s what they all used to do in the Sudan. I remember I once had to shoot a whole platoon for trying that.
Blackadder offers an analysis of the causes of the war:
Blackadder: You see, Baldrick, in order to prevent war in Europe, two superblocs developed: us, the French and the Russians on one side, and the Germans and Austro-Hungary on the other. The idea was to have two vast opposing armies, each acting as the other’s deterrent. That way there could never be a war.
Baldrick: But this is a sort of a war, isn’t it, sir?
Blackadder: Yes, that’s right. You see, there was a tiny flaw in the plan.
George: What was that, sir?
Blackadder: It was bollocks.
Baldrick, saddened at the animal friends he has lost, gives a plain and heartfelt speech against the war – the simplest of soldiers has worked out that it is a pointless waste of lives:
Baldrick: Why can’t we just stop, sir? Why can’t we just say, “No more killing, let’s all go home”? Why would it be stupid just to pack it in, sir, why?
George: Now, now, now, look here, you just stop that talk right now, Private. It’s, it’s absurd, it’s Bolshevism, and it wouldn’t work anyway.
Baldrick: Why not, sir?
George: “Why not?” Well, what do you mean? “Why wouldn’t it work?” It– It wouldn’t work, Private…It wouldn’t work because, there, well, now, you just get on with polishing those boots, all right?
We see Blackadder following this exchange closely. He clearly thinks Baldrick has a point. And the comedy gets suddenly darker in the next scene, where General Melchett hands Captain Darling his commission, meaning that he must join the others going “over the top” at dawn.
Darling is the pivot on which the episode turns from comedy to tragedy. Up to this point in the series, he has been Blackadder’s enemy, the subject of contempt – a sycophantic bureaucrat, keeping a safe distance behind the front line. But we feel his fear intensely as we see him literally pleading for his life, while Melchett – inadvertently or wilfully – misinterprets his protests:
Darling: No, sir…You’re, you’re not listening, sir. I’m begging you, please — for the sake of all the times I’ve helped you with your dicky bows and dicky bladder – please don’t make me…
Melchett: …make you go through the farewell debagging ceremony in the mess? Heh! No, I’ve spared you that, too, you touchingly sentimental young booby! Look: no fuss, no bother – the driver is already here.
Darling has been painted as a coward, but we understand his terror at this sudden turn of events. The nightmare mood of this scene is underlined by Melchett’s unsettling moustache net, and by the dramatic lighting portraying the arriving driver as a figure of doom.
Back in the trench, as the time to go over the top approaches, fear starts to take hold, even in the breezy and mindlessly patriotic George, and the simple Baldrick:
Blackadder: Yes, Lieutenant?
George: I’m scared, sir.
Baldrick: I’m scared too, sir.
George: I mean, I’m the last of the tiddlywinking leapfroggers from the golden summer of 1914. I don’t want to die. I’m really not overkeen on dying at all, sir.
As we enter the final sequence, the most moving speech is left to Captain Darling, on his arrival in the trench, when Blackadder asks him how he is feeling:
Erm, not all that good, Blackadder — rather hoped I’d get through the whole show; go back to work at Pratt & Sons; keep wicket for the Croydon gentlemen; marry Doris… Made a note in my diary on my way here. Simply says, “Bugger.”
Blackadder resists the temptation to mock or gloat over Darling, simply replying “Well, quite”. The adversaries are reconciled by fear. And in this moment, we are all Darling. Dislikeable though he is, we cannot but feel his tragedy: why should he be denied this modest, contented future?
As they wait in the trench to go over the top, they notice that the British guns have stopped firing, Darling concludes that the war is over: “Thank God! We lived through it! The Great War – 1914-1917.” (by now this dark joke might now require an explanatory caption: “The war did not end until 1918”). Blackadder has to point out to the men that the guns have only been silenced so they can make their attack.
We hear the chilling anonymous order: “On the signal, company will advance!” Blackadder’s final piece of caustic wit is aimed not at Baldrick, George or Darling, but at the war itself. There is no time to listen to Baldrick’s cunning plan:
Well, I’m afraid it’ll have to wait. Whatever it was, I’m sure it was better than my plan to get out of this by pretending to be mad. I mean, who would have noticed another madman round here?
When Blackadder says “Good luck, everyone” before blowing his whistle for the advance, he is sincere. We’re not laughing any more.
In the famous final scene we see all the main characters (except General Melchett) running into action with explosions around them. The scene is shown in slow motion, accompanied by a haunting, echoing piano slowly playing the Blackadder theme. It then fades into a tranquil poppy field, leaving us to draw our conclusions about their fate. Following the laughter that has gone before, this is devastating.
It was not written that way. The final scene had been hastily filmed on an unconvincing polystyrene set: furthermore the cast members, having once clambered through the obstructions, smoke and explosions in the dark, feared injury and refused to do another take. The resulting amateurish footage undermined the intended poignancy of the scene, so in editing, the episode’s director Richard Boden had the idea of using slow motion and fading into the poppy field with the sound of birdsong. The end credits were omitted.
During the filming of the episode, Rowan Atkinson described sharing his character’s dread of impending death and feeling a “knot in the pit of my stomach”, something he had not experienced before. By the end, we each have that knot in our stomach. To my mind, this is the finest half hour of television ever made.
And yes, I do mean better than the one with Del Boy falling through the bar.
In December 2009 I sat in the Birmingham office of an accountancy firm, turning in my hands a gemstone which had been valued at eleven million pounds. I had the chance to buy it. How much should I bid?
On 10th March 2009, Wrekin Construction, a private civil engineering business based in Shropshire with about 500 staff, collapsed into administration, owing creditors over £20m. Its main asset was a 2.1 kilogram lump of crystal, grandly described as the Gem of Tanzania in the company’s accounts, where it was valued at a princely £11m.
The stone had been discovered by Ideal Standards, a company mining near Arusha, a small town in northern Tanzania. Michael Hart-Jones, an investor in Ideal, bought the gem in 2002 for R200,000, or about £13,000.
Hart-Jones was a colourful character. He had been convicted of illegal diamond trading (wrongly, he said) in South Africa in the early 1980s. Then, according to official testimony from Ahmad Kabbah, the elected president of Sierra Leone restored to power in 1998, Hart-Jones had struck a deal with the illegal junta there the previous year to exploit its mineral resources, in return for facilitating a $1bn loan for the junta. Finally, a BBC2 Newsnight report from 2006 featuring Richard E Grant suggested that Hart-Jones had promoted a scam in Swaziland (now Eswatini) selling goat serum as an Aids treatment.
Mr Hart-Jones exported the ruby to the UK in 2002, but initially struggled to find a buyer. The next recorded owner was Tony Howarth, director of a foreign exchange company. Howarth sold the stone to Shropshire based businessman David Unwin in 2006, through a deal also involving land and Rolls-Royce cars, which valued the gem at £300,000. The gem was recorded at the same value on the balance sheet of Unwin’s company Tamar Group that year.
Tamar Holdings took over Wrekin Construction, and the gem received an astonishing revaluation to £11m in 2007:
Wrekin had acquired, at a cost of £11m in shares, what it described as “a ruby gem stone known as the “Gem of Tanzania”’ from its shareholder, Tamar Group Limited. The notes to the accounts went on to say that the fair value of the gemstone was determined by a professional valuer at the Istituto Gemmologico Italiano.
As it was purchased using shares rather than cash, the inclusion of the gemstone in the balance sheet at £11m helped raise Wrekin’s net assets from a negative £7.6m to a positive £6.3m. This made the company appear a more creditworthy partner for suppliers, customers and its bank, Royal Bank of Scotland.
Wrekin’s auditors for the nine month period ended 31 December 2007 were Ashgate Corporate Services Limited, a small Derby firm who had recently succeeded “big four” firm KPMG as auditors – a change which might itself have been read as a warning sign. Ashgate might have been surprised to see that a civil engineering business based in Shropshire, with turnover for the period of £60.9m and profit of £1.6m (against a loss of £9.5m the previous year) had decided to make a huge investment so far outside its core business.
A more alert auditor might have asked a few questions: most obviously, why would a construction company invest £11m in a gemstone? Was this a genuine arms-length transaction with its shareholder? Why had they chosen to get it valued in Italy? And why had nobody heard of this amazing gemstone, when the highest previous verifiable price for a ruby – the 8.62 carat Graff ruby sold by Christie’s in 2006 – was a mere $3.6m?
Ashgate were presented with a letter, purporting to be from the Istituto Gemmologico Italiano, confirming the valuation, and containing a photograph of the gemstone. That was good enough for them, and they duly signed off the accounts.
It is not known whether RBS’s decision to grant a £4.25m overdraft facility was influenced by the borrower’s ownership of the gem. According to a former Wrekin representative, RBS had lent the company £2.8m of that at the time of administration: perhaps they saved themselves the last £1.45m by finally taking a good look at Wrekin’s accounts.
Nor is it known what triggered the collapse of Wrekin Construction into administration, but it may be that bank lenders pulled the plug when they finally inspected the company’s balance sheet and saw what was propping it up. Initially Wrekin blamed RBS for its predicament because the bank would not extend credit to cover cash-flow problems.
Jonathan Guthrie of the Financial Times pieced together the story, and interesting and bizarre details emerged over the months of 2009.
Loridana Prosperi, a gemmologist at the head office of the Istituto Gemmologico Italiano in Milan, said of the valuation letter: “That is impossible, because we were on holiday on August 31 2007.” She said IGI never assessed the price of gemstones, only the quality – and the Valenza office did not even do that. It was soon confirmed that the valuation letter had been forged, but it was not established by whom.
Ernst and Young had been appointed as administrators, and they appointed GVA Grimley as their agents to dispose of Wrekin’s assets, of which the highest profile – if not the most valuable – was the gem. Ernst & Young consulted with experienced gemmologists, and determined that the ruby was opaque and of insufficient quality for faceting, meaning that it could be cut into smaller rounded, gems – or cabochons – but not into jewels with flat facets with an attractive sparkle.
They concluded however that if was of “sufficient quality and rarity” in its uncut state “to be of interest to public and private collections”. “It is not possible” they continued, “to place a value on the uncut stone, given its unique nature and consequent absence of comparable data. Any attempt to provide a potential range of valuations may prejudice future realisations”. In other words, because of its notoriety, the stone now had the potential to far exceed its value as a regular gem at auction.
It seems that top London auction houses rejected the gem because they deemed its value too low. Ernst & Young were reduced to advertising the sale in Rock ‘n’ Gem – a quarterly UK magazine, read by mineral collectors and devotees of “healing” crystals. The fact that Ernst & Young sought to sell the stone as a specimen was taken to imply that they were doubtful whether it could be cut profitably into individual jewels.
Hatton Garden gem dealer Marcus McCallum’s view was sought: “The Gem of Tanzania may not be worth the cost of the advert. A two kilo lump of anyolite (low grade ruby) is probably worth about £100. A valuation of £11m would be utterly bonkers.” Wrekin owner David Unwin was said by his lawyer to be “devastated” by the damage to his reputation caused by doubts over the value of the gem.
On behalf of Ernst and Young, GVA Grimley duly initiated an auction of the gem. The Financial Times saw it like this:
We should not, however, remember the gem as having failed to cut it as a polished crown jewel. It should instead be remembered as a staggeringly successful healing crystal. Though its mystical powers failed to prevent Wrekin Construction from folding, its mere presence on the company books clearly made group finances look and feel much healthier.
Like most new-age medicine, the stone derived its power from the faith of those who believe – in this case in its intrinsic ability to rise perpetually in value. The Gem of Tanzania was a magnificent placebo asset. In these straitened times, there must be many who would benefit from the gem’s awesome power. At the very least, the stone would make an excellent – if rather unattractive and unwieldy – paperweight. So, who will start the bidding?
I recognised a call to arms: here comes my cameo in this drama. 2009 had been an excellent year, and I had some cash to “invest”. The opportunity to acquire something recently so spectacularly valued was too good to ignore. The quality of the stone as a gem may have been questionable, but it was famous as the basis for a world-beating piece of bullshit. And my wife had a big birthday coming up. That could make a wonderful surprise gift. Er, couldn’t it?
I had very little idea where to pitch my bid: I can only repeat in my defence that, fuelled by the prospect of an excessive City bonus, I was feeling flush. I indicated what I regarded as a substantial bid to GVA Grimley. Within a few days they contacted me to advise me that I was among the top ten bidders, and offered me an appointment to view the gem.
So on a snowy 21st December I bunked off the morning at work (it wasn’t very busy) to attend Ernst and Young’s Birmingham office at 9:30 am to view the gemstone. Two men in suits ushered me into the presence of the stone. which I was allowed to handle. I solemnly turned it over for inspection. Of course I’m no gem expert, so I was none the wiser – it was a large, rough, reddish lump of rock, by no means beautiful.
They asked me if I wanted to increase my bid, and I did, slightly, to £5,679.00. As requested I left it with them for six weeks, while they continued to solicit bids and while the creditors’ committee decided on its course of action.
The 2nd February deadline passed and I had heard nothing. Growing impatient after a while, I contacted Jonathan Guthrie – journalists at the FT were still surprisingly accessible at the time, even supplying their email addresses under some articles – telling him that I had put in a bid and heard nothing back. I speculated that the administrators might have received better bids – or perhaps they were dithering about whether to accept the best bid. I was hoping that the FT would be able to flush out what had happened. Mr Guthrie did not disappoint: this appeared after a few days:
No prizes for identifying the “bidder anxious to know the outcome of the auction”. I thanked Mr Guthrie with the message “Anonymity at last!”
I can be a sore loser if I suspect the playing field has not been level, and wondered whether the new owner, Tim Watts, might have served on the Creditors’ Committee as his company Network Group was owed “several hundred thousand pounds” by Wrekin. This would have given him sight of all the bids, and given him “last looks” – i.e. the opportunity to enter a final winning bid just higher than the best on the table.
When I raised this question with Ernst and Young, they said in a carefully worded reply that “at no point during the Administration has Tim Watts been a member of the Creditors’ Committee” but that “following the receipt of this (successful) offer a member of the Creditors’ Committee declared a connection to the source of the bid, and from this point forward they had no further involvement in the decision making process to sell the Gem.”
Fair enough, but this still left open the possibility that the Committee member who declared his connection could have been advising the successful bidder of the progress of the auction. However, the Joint Administrator stated that he had “no reason to believe that the purchaser of the Gem was aware of the bidding position of other parties.” It struck me, though, that a Committee member who had relayed the auction prices to a contact would be unlikely to advertise the fact.
More persuasively, Ernst and Young advised me that my bid was the third highest in the auction, so that even without the winning bid, I would still not have been successful. So it was time for me to let it go: Mr Watts’ company had, after all, lost a substantial amount of money in the collapse of Wrekin Construction, and was merely trying to recoup some of it: furthermore my £5,679 was not close to his winning bid of £8,010. His was just better pitched, although it would still be interesting to know the level of the underbid.
Mr Watts continued to be bullish about the value of his new acquisition. He said “I got a jeweller friend of mine to look at it, and he instantly spotted around twenty beautiful deep red rubies on the surface.” Based on his friend’s valuation, Watts said the ruby could be worth anything between £300,000 and £2m.
But he went on to say that the only way to know for sure will be to bring in an expert: “We have identified that we are in need of a gentleman from a mining company in South Africa to come and join us at a dinner event to take it apart. We will have a little meal for the board of directors, with a bottle of 1948 ruby port which we still have in the cellar, and he will sit and chip away all night and we will watch the rubies fall out like pomegranate seeds.”
Disappointingly, this never happened. Although he estimated breaking up the stone would generate a return of at least £50,000, he kept the stone intact, believing, on the basis of interest from enthusiasts in the US, that he could get much more by selling the stone intact.
He eventually decided to to keep it, and was quoted in 2011 saying “If I ever get down to my last fiver and need a good bottle of Shiraz then I might do something with the ruby. For the moment I am going to keep it.”
And, if the radio silence on the subject for the last ten years is any guide, Mr Watts has not received an offer for the gem which has tempted him to sell the gem, and he still owns the fabled Gem of Tanzania. One day we might have a better idea of its true value, which might require someone to break it apart first. But that would be a shame. We need some mystery in our lives.