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

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

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

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

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

The Rainbow, as it appeared the following year, besieged by Osmonds fans

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

Rob’s ticket. Retained it was.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here is the set list from that fantastic evening:

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

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

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

 

The shadow on the lawn

Chestnut Avenue

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

pool

Gaukey and Me (part 2)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gauke001

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

.

Night visits

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nain and Taid, with Aelwyn (left) and Glyn

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

51

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

“How’s my all-American boy?”

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

“Dad, what are you doing?”

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

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

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

Eventually he raises his head and changes the subject.

“So, you had a good time at camp?”

“Yeah, pretty good.”

“And you’re an American boy now?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So that was the liberation of Reagan Square?”

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

“Jeez.”

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

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

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

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

“The what?”

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

“So Dad?”

“Uh?”

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

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

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

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

“Ive, can we go for a coffee?”

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

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

“I’m so sorry, Wash.”

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

elementary

there’s wineum and beerium
(encouraging delirium)
aelwynium kathleenium
make robium and rikium
there’s coffee and walnuttium
chocolate cake and stuffium
beryllium (yes, reallium)
with scottium makes biffium
and timium and debbium
there’s striderslite and kryptonite
and dekker and the israelites
bottium and bittium
productive of two babium
rachelium, alicium
(inflates balloons with helium)
chipsium and fishium
who live in an aquarium
jamaicarum and lagerum
(or fosters in australium)
milkium makes butter (um,
add chlorine and some sodium)
fionium robynium
theodorum and ulysseum
there’s thisium and thatium
tumbi snudge and crackium
there’s falko-um and finnium
and spanish inquisitium
(you did not expectium
the spanish inquisitium)

if I could give a longer list
of elements I surely would
of others that I may have missed
no news has come to chorleywood

 

(apologies to Tom Lehrer, W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan)

Please don’t

eu-uk-flag-std

Please don’t say “We didn’t win two world wars to be pushed around by a Kraut”.  How old are you?  Unless you’re over 120 years old you can’t have fought in two world wars, and unless you’re over 90 you can’t have fought in one. Don’t claim credit for something you haven’t done. You and I have no idea what those wars were like to live through. My father did fight in WW2, and he was a keen supporter of the European Union.  He saw it as a major factor contributing to peace in Europe since 1945.

Please don’t use words like betrayal when talking about MPs acting sincerely in what they see as the best interests of the country.  Britain is a representative democracy where we elect generally well informed Members of Parliament to make decisions on behalf of the country.  Perhaps this is why the majority of MPs voted in favour of remaining in the European Union.

Please don’t invoke Winston Churchill as a supporter. He led Britain in a war which was forced upon Britain, not one he went looking for. He was a founding father of the idea of a European Union: in 1946 he advocated a close partnership between France and Germany from which could be built a peaceful and prosperous Europe. He was no Little Englander.

Please don’t say “We survived the blitz.” Because a lot of people didn’t.  Nor did you, unless you actually lived in a British city during WW2.  Nobody voted for the blitz, it was not a war of choice.

Please don’t equate Angela Merkel with Hitler.  She is a decent, democratic and pragmatic leader. She grew up in communist East Germany, and knows much more about living under totalitarianism than you do.

Please don’t wave the Union Flag around as if you own it, or as if you speak for everyone in the UK. It is the flag of a country whose people have many different opinions. There is no contradiction in flying it alongside the EU flag. The narrow nationalist agenda followed by the people most fond of waving the union flag is likely, over time, to result in the break-up of the UK. Scots are resentful of being dragged out of the EU, and will not tolerate nationalist English leaders for long. In Northern Ireland, once the contradictions of being part of the UK while also having a border with an EU country start to cause daily aggravation, a majority of the residents might soon decide that life would be easier as part of the Irish Republic. And the flag wavers could be left with just the cross of St George.

Please don’t think leaving the EU is somehow patriotic. Ponder why Trump and Putin want us to leave. Listen to the businessmen around the world who want to trade with the UK, who think we’re crazy to leave.

Please don’t insult our fellow Europeans. We come from the country of Shakespeare and the Beatles, and we also come from the continent of Michelangelo, Einstein, Marie Curie, Aristotle and Voltaire.  Celebrate it.

Please don’t lie, and please don’t encourage it or ignore it when people on your side of the argument lie. Just stop it.

Addressing unfairness in the Virgin Money London Marathon and Boston Marathon qualifying times

img_2136
About to decline a jelly baby

Back in May, when I was just 62, I was quite pleased to complete the Milton Keynes Marathon in 3.52.11. “Wow, that’s a good time” said a friend. “Nice of you to say so” I replied, “but no, not really.”

You see, some old fellow out there has run a 2.36.15 marathon. I can use an age-graded calculator which divides the (approximate) world record time for my age by my own time: this comes out at 67.29%, compared to 100% for the best in the world of my age. Welcome to the unforgiving world of age grading.

Age grading is a useful tool for motivating runners as we get older. Inevitably, as we move into our forties and beyond, new personal bests will elude us. But an age graded percentage can offer encouragement by showing us that although our times are slower in absolute terms, they can actually be better quality when viewed against our peers. So we can still have an achievable target to aim at. In my case I’m pretty chuffed if I can hit 70%.

For many years, the London Marathon has reserved a number of “Good For Age” places: men and women achieving certain times at other marathons in each age group have been guaranteed entry. This changed from the 2019 race: since then, running a good for age time only gets the right to apply for a place: a cut-off is then applied inside the qualification standard to reduce the number of qualifying runners to the preset limit.

Presumably this change was made to manage the unpredictability of the number of qualifiers, as the London Marathon grows ever more popular. But it is harsh on runners: in previous years, they could find a flat, fast course and aim for a London qualifying time, knowing that if they managed to hit the target, they had a guaranteed place. But now they must wait to see where the cut-off is made: very possibly all their effort to qualify will have been for nothing.

In my case, had I run eight minutes faster and got just inside my 3.45 qualifying standard, I would have been bitterly disappointed when the cut-off was later made at 3.42.20. I suspect most runners would rather see slightly tougher qualifying standards, but with guaranteed entry as before: at least they would have a fixed and transparent target. The organisers shouldn’t find it difficult to manage some variation in numbers: a surplus could be absorbed by the inevitable large number of late cancellations due to injury, while any extra places would be snapped up by charities.

Comparing the qualifying standards for men and women highlights another potential issue. The standards for women appear more lenient compared to world record standards. I thought I’d run some numbers to check this impression.

London Good For Age001

The table confirms this – women under 60 have substantially less demanding standards. In the youngest age category, the required age grade is more than 9% lower than for men. This means that for a large band of club standard runners, women will qualify while men of comparable ability will not.

This is not an accident. The organisers have deliberately chosen equality of outcome over equality of opportunity. The website states:

The number of Good For Age entries for the 2020 Virgin Money London Marathon is capped at a total of 6,000 places and has been split evenly with 3,000 entries for women and 3,000 entries for men.

“Split evenly” sounds fair, but takes no account of the different numbers of men and women who might apply. As far as I know, this figure is not disclosed, but presumably the easier standards for women reflect fewer applications. And while there are many areas where a case can be argued for positive discrimination, I’m not sure that running – the most democratic and easily measured of sports – is one of them. Surely both genders should be set equally demanding targets?

Notice, though, that older men have easier targets than women in terms of age grading. Age grading isn’t perfect, and can easily be affected by outliers, especially in the older categories, where statistics are relatively thin. And if, for example, an 80-year old is willing and able to run a marathon, most people would say good luck to them. In 2019, 14 men and 3 women over 80 started the race, and all but one finished. You could hardly say they’re hogging all the places.

It’s interesting to compare qualifying times with the Boston Marathon. Alone among the major city marathons, Boston sets tough standards for the great majority of its entrants. It has been run regularly since 1897, and as the oldest annual marathon, it takes pride in being seen as a high quality race.

Boston qualifying001

Boston also used to guarantee entry to anyone achieving the qualifying standard, but from 2012 the ever increasing popularity of the race led them to apply a lower cut-off. Such a high percentage of their entrants are time qualifiers (over 80% for 2020) that they have to carefully manage the numbers to stay within their race limit: this contrasts with London where the 6,000 Good For Age places represent only about 15% of the total field. In 2019, for example, Boston had so many applicants achieving qualifying times that it imposed a drastic cut-off of 4 minutes 52 seconds lower, which resulted in it rejecting 7,248 runners with qualifying times (about a quarter of the applicants), and then tightening the qualifying times for the following year.

Boston age grade standards for men are much more consistent, falling broadly into the 65-70% range, while London varies hugely between 57% and 74%. However, the women’s standards in Boston seem to have been added as a lazy afterthought – a flat 30 minutes has been added to the men’s time in all age categories, which strongly favours younger women, so that, for example, an 80-year old woman needs a world-class 90% age grading to qualify, while younger women again have substantially easier targets than the men.

Boston has been running a successful marathon for over 120 years, London for nearly 40. These fantastic races have earned the right to run themselves as they wish, and are only being constrained by their own success. But both, if they wished, could improve on the fairness and transparency of their qualification rules, without having to make more places available.

Boston could reset the women’s qualifying times to a more consistent age grading standard by tightening them for younger groups and loosening them for the over 60s.  The current standards for women have not been given serious thought.

And London? I’ve no doubt that the organisers thought they were doing the right thing by setting the standards to achieve equal representation for men and women. But isn’t that just patronising? Surely all runners – where possible – deserve an equal opportunity. Qualifying times should be adjusted to make it a level playing field between men and women. And I’m pretty sure most runners would like to see a return to guaranteed entry for qualifying times – even if that means the times are slightly more demanding – so they know exactly what they have to do to qualify.  If the organisers care about the runners, they should prioritise fairness and transparency over their own convenience.

king commode and his expanding rubber band, Watford Grammar School for Boys – 1st April 1969

take-off

A school revue it was, called take-off!, when I was twelve, young enough to be gratified and think it hilarious that my maths teacher, Mr Wolton, (and many other very game teachers) could appear on stage in comedy sketches. I sat next to John Moore, a friend dating back to primary school. It was 1st April 1969, and there was a relaxed end-of-term vibe. Everything seemed very funny.

My cousin David appeared playing a tune on a colourful structure he called magic mushrooms (!), a strange plaster sculpture he had made in art class, which he said “surprisingly turned out to be tuneful!” I was quietly proud of how well he was received.

But the revelation that evening was a real live rock/jazz band – the first live gig I had heard – king commode and his expanding rubber band, modishly foregoing capitalisation that evening in common with the rest of the event programme. The lineup was given thus:

on a good night the band includes snake-hips sugden  martino g-string clarke  liver lips louis leach  steve bongos stead  paul fuzz-face devonshire  ralph licorice-stick compton  chris bass-man newman  beasley the bum  colonel richard entwistle & finally lord fantastic

I didn’t know at the time, but these boys had auditioned for the TV talent show Opportunity Knocks the year before:

opportunity knocks

I wonder how many of the lads in this band – which I now know comprised five boys from Watford Grammar and five from Bushey Grammar – went on to become solicitors and accountants. When the band started playing I was transfixed: I stared unblinking at the stage, laughing with joy, taking in the noise, the rhythm and the stage antics. I can only recall one of their numbers: consistent with the zany stage names, they performed what seemed, to my untutored ears, a storming version of the Bonzos’ Death Cab for Cutie – an Elvis pastiche which the Bonzos had performed in the Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour. Sadly, no footage survives of king commode and his expanding rubber band, but here are the Bonzos (more properly the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band) performing the song on the children’s TV programme Do Not Adjust Your Set with bonus footage of a young Michael Palin:

Thanks to the miracle of the internet, I have been able to find the exact date: a search on the band name led me to the website of none other than liver lips louis leach, now going under the more sedate handle of Richard Leach.

Richard is a now multi-award winning jazz player, still playing his trombone all around Europe. He was able to help me out:

Yes, I was on the Take-off gig at Watford Boys Grammar and can actually pinpoint the exact date for you, purely and simply because I remember one of our WGS friends who was compering the evening bounding on stage and announcing over the mic that ‘for those of you who are wondering what has happened at Vicarage Road this evening it has finished Watford 1 Southport…..lost’. I’ve just used ‘Mr. Google’ to learn that it was 1st April 1969, halcyon days for the Hornets that season as they won the Division 3 championship a few weeks later.

Thanks, Richard, for your amazing recall!  Richard was also kind enough to reach out, as we say, to the other band members to enable me to grow my knowledge of the band to an extent I previously could only have dreamed of:

A couple of the band have remembered that we played Hello Dolly, which I used to sing in a throaty, gravelled voice a la Louis Armstrong and also recalled that I used a tin of stage face-xxxxxxxx as well. You’d better not mention that in this day and age Rik otherwise I won’t be able to run for the President of Canada position again!! Apparently, John Jenkins, one of the production team on the show recorded it but wiped the tape clean thinking it really was Louis Armstrong. Blimey, I didn’t know I sounded that authentic.

There was definitely a lot of influence from the Bonzos, so it’s quite possible that we played ‘Jollity Farm’ (complete with all the animal noises), ‘Jazz, Delicious Hot, Disgusting Cold’ and ‘Mickey’s Son and Daughter’.

Paul Devonshire also remembers us playing ‘Rock Me Baby’ in ‘take-off’ featuring Chris Newman on guitar. Chris went on to play with Diz Disley, Stephane Grappelli and Fred Wedlock, even composing ‘The Oldest Swinger in Town’ for him.

martino g-string clarke has also followed the trend of simplifying his name, now preferring to be known as Martin Clarke.  Martin was able to add another nugget:

We did do our own version of “God Save the Queen” which broke out into Saints after everyone had got to their feet.

Thanks to the assistance I’ve had from Richard and other band members, I’m proud to provide a definitive list of the band that night:

Mark Sugden (trumpet & vocals)
Richard Entwistle (tenor sax)
Paul Devonshire (clarinet, alto sax & baritone sax)
Ralph Compton (clarinet)
Richard Leach (trombone)
Roger Hillier (piano)
Martin Clarke (banjo)
Chris Newman (guitar & bass guitar)
John Elliot (tuba)
Steve Stead (drums)

We’ll have to leave Roger Hillier and John Elliot to fight it out over which was beasley the bum and which was lord fantastic.  Or, possibly, finally lord fantastic.

reunion
Band 50-year reunion, July 2016

Looking at this photo suggests to me that making music and having a laugh is not a bad recipe for life.  Perhaps the odd pint doesn’t hurt either.

I had no yardstick with which to measure the quality of the live music I heard that night, fifty years ago. But to my impressionable young ears, it was the best thing, ever.  Thank you guys.

R.I.P. Mark “Snake-hips” Sugden.

Dr Feelgood, Cambridge Corn Exchange – 25 September 1976

So, who were the godfathers of punk? Sixties bands like the Kinks, and the American garage bands which followed them proved that exciting records could be made with a modest level of skill. The Velvet Underground’s attitude and Iggy and the Stooges’ wild energy pointed the way – and David Bowie helped both to reach a wider audience. For me, though, punk started in 1975 when I first saw Dr Feelgood.

I had finished school in December 1974, and had nine months to fill before starting at Warwick. Many would have seen this as an opportunity to travel to Borneo, Peru, Thailand, anywhere. I went to work at the Department of Employment in Watford, where my most important learning was that I should not make my career in the civil service.

Although a huge fan of pop and rock music, I was finding very little to enjoy at the time: there was a sharp divide between “serious” artists who made albums, usually overlong and pretentious (rock bands like Led Zeppelin would never deign to issue a single), and “pop” artists, usually targeting the under 15s or the over 40s. The singles charts were dominated by the Bay City Rollers, the Drifters in their pop reincarnation, novelty records like Kenny’s The Bump, novelty acts like the Wombles. The Stones had gone soft, Bowie had gone funky. Thin times for a lover of rock’roll and high quality pop music.

During the early months of 1975 I was vegetating in front of the telly after “work” and a programme called The Geordie Scene came on. It was a short-lived but pacy thing: teenagers dancing in a studio, like Top of the Pops, introduced by a smarmy, facetious DJ, like Top of the Pops. This week’s show was given over to Dr Feelgood.

I was startled. Wilko Johnson marched back and forth on stage like one of the Shadows on speed, chopping at his guitar as if his life depended on it, trailing a long curly lead. Lee Brilleaux growled into his mic, a small time villain from a cop drama, forever sweating and loosening his collar and tie as if the excitement was a surprise to him. The music was fast, exciting, earthy. Completely out of sync with everything else that was popular, they were prophets come to lead us to a better future, or a better past, and I reached for them, a parched wanderer at an oasis. Someone else out there cared about the Coasters and Riot in Cell Block #9, and that made me happy.

The band took their name from a favourite track by Johnny Kidd & the Pirates, but it was also blues speak for a medical practitioner prepared to take a flexible view of his patients’ prescription needs.  Certainly, they could make you feel better than you should.

It was some time before I got to see them live, but a review in Melody Maker of the fabled Naughty Rhythms Tour (which they undertook with Chilli Willi & The Red Hot Peppers and Kokomo) stuck in my mind:

Dr Feelgood came out, played like a hurricane and the crowd went potty. This has happened every night of the tour.

Their records were enjoyable, but the band weren’t exceptional songwriters: they worked best live. So I visited my brother in Cambridge to catch them at last, and they didn’t disappoint: sixty minutes of uncompromising sweaty blast. The crowd did, indeed, go potty. I may have had a beer or two, and the details are a little fuzzy, but their set list would have been something like this:

I Can Tell
All through the City
Back in the Night
Roxette
Keep It Out of Sight
Goin’ Back Home
Walkin’ the Dog
I’m a Hog for You
Riot in Cell Block #9
Rollin’ and Tumblin’
She Does It Right
Bony Moronie / Tequila

Encore:

You Shouldn’t Call the Doctor (If You Can’t Afford the Bills)
Great Balls of Fire

Happy days!   By this stage the punk revolution they had heralded was well underway, and the tired old hippy bands who had held sway were about to be pushed into oblivion.

Here is a clip of the Feelgoods’ triumphant return to home territory at the Southend Kursaal in the same year. Skip the long intro: start about 1:10:

Enjoy!

Everly Brothers, Royal Albert Hall – Thursday 22 September 1983

On 14 July 1973 the Everly Brothers were playing a concert at Knott’s Berry Farm in Buena Park, California. Halfway through the show the venue booking agent stopped the show: Don Everly was clearly incapacitated, playing erratically and forgetting lyrics. In frustration, Phil smashed his guitar and announced their split, telling the crowd, “I’m tired of being an Everly brother… The Everly Brothers died ten years ago.” Years of touring as “has-beens” in the wake of the Beatles and the music revolution they triggered had taken their toll.

The rift lasted ten years. Don and Phil lived two thousand miles apart: Don in Nashville and Phil in L.A. They pursued separate careers, with very modest success. Their fans were deprived of hearing those sublime harmonies in concert.

But by the end of those ten years, they were no longer regarded as a clapped out relic of the rock’n’roll era, but as a revered musical treasure. Albert Lee, noted British guitarist, was a friend of each brother independently, and was able to effect a reconciliation. They agreed to put their differences aside and perform together again.

But where? Their popularity had endured longer into the 1960s in Britain than in the USA: and with all the world to choose from, they opted for London’s Royal Albert Hall – or Albert Hall, as Don called it on the night – where they had last performed on stage with their musical mentor, their father Ike, on 11 October 1971.

Much thought went into presentation, and it was decided to use the huge width of the stage for dramatic effect. The idea was that Phil should walk on from the left, and Don from the right, so their meeting in the middle would symbolise the reunion.
“Do you think they’ll get it?” asked the brothers. The reply came back from their British hosts “Are you nuts? They’ll go crazy!”

I was only one year old when they had their first hit, but I had discovered their music as a teenager through the rock’n’roll revival films of 1973, American Graffiti and That’ll be the Day. Also, I should admit, through a Radio One broadcast each Sunday, which played the records from the chart five, ten and fifteen years ago: so in 1972, the show was playing Everly hits from 1957. I owe much to this show, which also opened my ears to early Elvis, to Fats Domino, Eddie Cochran and many more. It was presented by a Mr Jimmy Savile.

So in my teenage years I became a voracious reader of any books I could obtain about 1950s rock’n’roll. These had been very thin on the ground but were now growing rapidly in number as the first generation of fans reached maturity, writing perceptively and entertainingly about the music while retaining their passion for it. I gobbled up pop music encyclopaedias – they could point me towards new treasures.

In the early 1970s my friends at school were getting off on Genesis, Yes, Emerson Lake and Palmer and the like: to me it seemed bombastic, self-important and overblown, plain boring. In reaction I reached back into the simpler times before the reign of the Beatles, and acquired greatest hits collections by Chuck Berry, Little Richard, the Arcade release of Elvis’s 40 greatest. Once I was caught by a classmate on Watford High Street holding a newly purchased copy of The World of Billy Fury. I’m pretty sure that shredded the last of any “cred” I might have had.

It hurts, when a favourite band breaks up, or when your heroes fall out with each other.
And when the Everlys’ concerts were announced, it was well known, not just that Don and Phil hadn’t performed together for ten years, but that in that time they’d barely even spoken to each other. So when, on Thursday 22 September 1983, Phil walked out from the left, Don walked out from the right, and they met in the middle of the stage and embraced, the audience, as predicted, went wild. They launched into a driving version of The Price of Love, and we were in the palms of their hands for the rest of the evening.

They sang their best known hits with a joyous freshness, each familiar song revealed anew. They also made time for an acoustic selection from Songs Our Daddy Taught Us, referencing their previous appearance at the venue.

I went with my cousin – another Phil – several years older than me, and able to remember the Everlys the first time round. If anyone tells you nostalgia ain’t what it used to be, they haven’t met Phil: he is capable of being nostalgic for lunch by teatime. But when the Everly Brothers completed an exquisite, tender version of All I Have To Do Is Dream, I had to admit that (cousin) Phil’s Welsh-accented roar of ecstatic approval was entirely appropriate.

Throughout the song the brothers looked at each other with an intense fondness. Singing close harmony of course requires them to keep each other in view, but this was something much more. The years of bitterness melted away as they rediscovered their love for each other, and their love for singing together. Two voices, no more than pleasant individually, coming together to produce something sublime. And we were there to witness this joyful reconciliation.

Led Zeppelin, Empire Pool, Wembley – 21 November 1971

Don’t worry, we only printed 18,000. Ticket from first night.

 Having a cool brother three years older than me was a blessing. It meant that despite being a nerdy coin-collecting teenager, I was exposed to some great music in our shared bedroom/games room in Chorleywood: besides the obvious Beatles and Stones stuff, I also heard the likes of Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Leonard Cohen, Julie Felix (quite a lot), King Crimson, and the latest rage at school, Led Zeppelin. So when I heard that they were to play Wembley Empire Pool (now Wembley Arena), this fifteen year old rock fan, who hadn’t yet been to a proper rock concert, didn’t hang about.

Consider this. Led Zeppelin had already released their first three albums to huge success, and their fourth – which included Stairway to Heaven – was about to complete their world conquest. The tickets were 75p – seventy-five fucking p! – fifteen shillings as it would have been a year earlier.

Ah but, you say, that was a lot of money in those days, counting inflation and everything. Well no, not really. At the time I was doing a paper round – remember those? – which earned me £1.50 a week. It wasn’t a difficult decision to blow half a week’s pay to see Led Zep. Back then bands priced their tickets for pocket money: by contrast an album cost a princely £1.99. Bit of a turnaround in relative prices since then.

I was with Martin King, much cooler than I. It was the second of two gigs at the venue: the first date on Saturday (which my brother attended) had sold out in less than an hour, and they added a Sunday date. I remember my excitement being slightly overshadowed by the anticipation of school the next day, probably intensified because I still had a history essay due in.

The show was billed as “Electric Magic”, an ambitious concept: as well as support from raunchy blues rockers Stone the Crows featuring Maggie Bell, there were circus acts, performing pigs (!) and all kinds of weird shit. I don’t remember that stuff making much impact, we just wanted the band.

Boy was it worth the wait. They came on and tore into Immigrant Song. It was electrifying: I had never heard anything like it, and somehow by the end of their first song tears had welled up from sheer excitement and joy. I remember the whole show being terrific: pulsating rock music and world class posturing and screaming from Robert Plant, with perhaps just a couple of longueurs provided by a lengthy Jimmy Page guitar solo and the even lengthier drum solo. Martin bought a can of warm lager and banged his head in time: my eyes were glued to the stage, as I drank orangeade and politely tapped my foot.

Their set list was something like this:

Immigrant Song
Heartbreaker
Black Dog
Since I’ve Been Loving You
Rock and Roll
Stairway to Heaven
Going to California
That’s the Way
Tangerine
Bron-y-Aur Stomp
Dazed and Confused
Celebration Day
What Is and What Should Never Be
Moby Dick
Whole Lotta Love (with blues medley)

and for the encore

Communication Breakdown

Someone smuggled in their cassette recorder, and amazingly you can access a recording of the whole performance – albeit with atrocious sound quality – here:

I wouldn’t want to listen to all of it, but Immigrant Song at the start still gives me goosebumps. You never forget your first gig, and mine happened to be one of the greats of rock music at their peak. I didn’t know how lucky I was at the time. But I sure had fun.

 

The Golden Tree of St Francis

 

What the fuck was that? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Signore, posso prendere questa sedia? 

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

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

 

run places

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Cinquanta

verona2

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

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

verona4

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

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

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

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

 

(August 2006)

The Voyage of the Alpha Beta

Mull001
Eleven heroes left Glengorm
Ignoring the approaching storm
So Wednesday night in Tobermory
Begins our sad and sober story
Where our eleven sailors bold
(Four young, four middle-aged, three cold)
With trembling hearts and steady feet em-
barked upon the Alpha Beta.
Four young, four middle-aged, three wrinklies
Went out that night in search of Minkes.
Aelwyn, senior of the crowd,
The father, resolute and proud
Kath held on for dear, dear life,
Loving mother, nana, wife.
Mull003
Speff was knocking back the grog
Every bit the old sea-dog.
Rachel went to eat a sandwich
Of chicken, bread and basil, and which
Once her appetite was sated
From her stomach separated
Embarking on its own romantic
Trip across the North Atlantic.
The boat sailed on into the night
While whales danced, just out of sight.
Mull002
Said Lindsay “I spy W”
Said the others “we will trouble you
To show us, please, where is this whale?”
“It’s in the head”, (like Alice’s “tail”)
Poor Debbie, rock on whom this trip was built
Sat below, consumed with guilt.
The isles of Rum and Muck and Eigg
They really didn’t give a feigg.
The isles of Eigg and Rum and Muck
They really couldn’t have worse luck.
While the crew were bravely singing
Still the Mars bar mocked them, swinging.
The boat sailed on, it pitched and rolled
But daunted not our sailors bold.
Mull004
Now coming back, with trembling hand
Gratefully regained the land
Adventurers who’d spotted nuffin
But a porpoise, seagulls and a puffin.
Now at last the story’s done
We go away to look for sun
But ever more, up in the north
They’ll mark July the twenty-fourth
And the locals will regale you
96 successes means that 4 will fail you.
Last before we separate
Kath says that we must name a date
When all will come back to this glen
So, see you here in twenty-ten!
(24 July 2002)
****************************************************
Year on year has quickly stacked –
The prophecy becomes a fact:
Though we parted as eleven
We come back now as only seven:
Kath is gone, and sorely missed
Speff, in Hightown, getting…well
Lindsay? Lending helping hands
Robyn? Other travel plans.
So here we are, anticipating
A little more precipitating:
Let’s follow our success with seagulls –
Time to go and find those eagles!
(August 2010)
****************************************************

Pilgrimage

 

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

(August 2010)

 

A brush with greatness

Sir David Attenborough, English broadcaster and naturalist, at his home in Richmond, Borough of Richmond upon Thames, England UK

In 2012 I attended a ceremony on 12 May in London celebrating Edward Lear’s

bicentenary, when a plaque was unveiled in Stratford Place.
plaque

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fall of the House of

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Richard Fuld of Lehman Brothers