The chance to meet one of your heroes is rare, so when I heard that Michael Palin was visiting Chorleywood Bookshop to sign his new book I snapped up a couple of tickets. Erebus: The Story of a Ship is a thoroughly researched and readable account of an exploration vessel which disappeared in 1845, and was finally found in 2014. But I wouldn’t have considered a purchase had it not been bundled with the opportunity to meet the great man. Craig, who accompanied me, was probably one of very few in the long queue with a genuine and deep interest in naval history.
Palin, sitting at the table greeting customers and signing books as quickly as his charm and good manners would allow, wore a slightly weary demeanour suggesting he was conscious of the transaction to which he was party: he wasn’t promoting a book so much as selling meet-and-greets. Perhaps to counter this perception (we were told he had a strict deadline to leave for another engagement) it was announced that photographs weren’t allowed, and he wouldn’t be posing for selfies. This would not be the occasion to recite your dead parrot lines.
Michael Palin has had a wonderful career. After the brilliant success of the Monty Python TV show and films, he has written and starred in other shows, been a successful writer of fiction, non fiction and children’s books, and a film actor. He has travelled the world many times for his documentaries, and served as president of the Royal Geographical Society. In 2019 he received a knighthood.
But he knows that it is his early work with Monty Python, touched with genius, which will endure, and is the reason why so many people are here. Today he’s in the business of selling books, and he does it very professionally. But I can’t escape the feeling that he’d rather be somewhere else.
Kelly Holmes became one of my biggest sporting heroes after I saw her win both the 800m and the 1500m in the stadium at the 2004 Athens Olympics. She had seemed surprised to win the 800m on 23 August, but five days later was imperious in the 1500m. She ran a relaxed race, in eighth position at the bell, and steadily moved through the field on the final lap to be right on the shoulder of the leaders coming into the home straight: she was unstoppable, and the British contingent in the stadium went crazy.
Her event was not just a signing: there was an interview in Christ Church Chorleywood, illustrated with video. She entered with a limp acquired during a 5k – testament to her continuing competitive spirit – but otherwise looked in excellent shape, capable of being first finisher at any parkrun she chose to enter, fourteen years after her Olympic triumphs.
She spoke movingly about her childhood, acknowledging the support from her mother – while describing her absentee father as ‘the sperm donor’ – and about her struggles with injury, which at one point caused her to self harm. To much applause we were shown videos of her gold medal winning performances, which, she admitted, she never tired of watching. Why would she? Once, after swearing, she looked around guiltily and said ‘Oh sorry! In a church! Or what is it, a cathedral?’
We queued to buy her book – a lifestyle guide, which again, I wouldn’t otherwise have bought – and more importantly, meet her. The queue was long, but she had time for everyone – she seemed to be enjoying every minute. When my turn came, I told her I had been in the stadium cheering her victories, and thanked her for making those Olympics so special. She was lovely: she signed my book and posed for a photo.
When I showed this to my wife she pointed out that I had put my arm around her waist. My god, so I did! How did I dare? Sorry, I can only suggest that she was such a friendly, approachable presence that it seemed natural, and that she seemed so small (5 feet 3) that it made me feel protective. Of a world beating athlete.
Sir Michael Palin and Dame Kelly Holmes have some things in common. Both have huge achievements to their credit, some years in their past. So why should their attitudes to continued celebrity be so different? Neither is likely to regain their previous heights.
But this is surely easier for Holmes to accept: every athlete realises they will start to slow after reaching 30 – in fact Holmes was 34 in Athens, and retired a short while later. She had, perhaps, the perfect timeline, in that she crowned an inconsistent and often frustrating career with brilliant success. She was able to go out on a huge high, with no regrets: this allows her an uncomplicated enjoyment of her celebrity.
Creatives like Palin, however, are likely to have a different perspective. His best work was as a writer and comic actor, nothing too physically strenuous. Why should it not be possible to maintain success at the same level into his old age? Probably because it is very difficult to sustain cutting edge creativity over a long period. Some comedians, of course, maintained a very long career: Bob Hope and George Burns spring to mind, but they were hardly revolutionary.
Monty Python, by contrast, was mould-breaking, and moulds can be broken but once. To sustain that level of creativity, of continuous surprise, is hardly possible. Spike Milligan possibly succeeded, but he was a once in a generation comic genius. It is much more common for comedians to follow the route, as Palin has, to writing books and acting.
When Peter Cook died, some obituaries regretted that he had never fulfilled his early potential. Jonathan Ross pointed out that Cook had simply fulfilled his potential early. So it is for Palin and the rest of the Python team. They could never hope to match what they achieved in those early years. Just ask Paul McCartney.
I used to make use of late opening on Monday evenings, and call in on the way home from the station. I would browse through the beautifully illustrated children’s books and choose six to bring home to read to the girls. The rather stern lady checking out the books said “I don’t like Dr Seuss – it’s just playing with words.” Poetry, then.
Rachel was excited when I brought them home, and tired and impatient for dinner though I was, I loved sitting with her nestled against me on the bedroom floor, enjoying each other’s complete attention as I pointed to the words and she followed. Children’s books had become much brighter since I was a boy. There was Quentin Blake, with his wonderful, affectionate drawings of beaky, friendly people.
And Martin Waddell whose books sometimes achieve a strong emotional pull, every bit as powerful on parent as on child.
I loved watching her respond to the theatricality of the books. One simply described a walk in the country on a summer’s day, but as you turned one page there was a double page spread of a brightly coloured tractor harvesting a field, showing a brilliant blue sky, a sea of golden wheat, the cloud of dust around it, and a frenzy of birds wheeling overhead: I watched delighted as she experienced the shock and joy of turning the page to see that dramatic picture.
I included some educational books, and Rachel was keen to be educated. One was a well-written simplified guide to space and the solar system. It was thrilling to watch her bright eyes as she took it all in, asking question after question, each one showing she had understood the previous answer.
I loved these exhilarating teaching moments, aware that I would not always be able to answer Rachel’s questions, that she would some day no longer look to me for answers, and that she might one day even lose her boundless appetite for learning. The last of these, I’m glad to say, looks unlikely to happen.
When I retired, one of my tasks was to register with the local dentist. Part of the process was filling in a questionnaire, which included the question “On a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 means not at all, and 10 means extremely, how anxious are you about visiting the dentist?” I marked it an 8. The nice lady asked if I had suffered bad dental experiences. I said yes, in this very building, nearly fifty years ago.
We British have a reputation – mostly deserved, I’m afraid – for bad teeth. In America we’re famous for it. We sent over Keith Richards
and David Bowie
as dental ambassadors. I put this down to a generation of dentists who seemed to come from a military background, recruited in the days when physical strength was required for the job. They thought their patients should take their punishment like men.
Mr R of Rosebank was such a practitioner. He got off to a terrible start by calling Rob Bob and calling me Dick. I needed fillings. He injected local anaesthetic with such force and vigour that it was difficult to imagine it was protecting me from anything still more painful. But my imagination was given some assistance when he started drilling, with what felt like more enthusiasm than accuracy. There might have been an extraction too, my memory is probably trying to protect me.
A handful of visits to Mr R left me so traumatised that when I was of an age to arrange my own dental care, I just didn’t. I dread to think what was going on inside there. Fast forward about twenty years (I know) to the birth of our second daughter. She was born with a cleft palate, and we were told that in the coming years she would need orthodontics and oral surgery. And I realised I would have to look her in the eye and ask her to be brave and tell her it would all be worth it.
So one day in my lunch break I took the first and most difficult step: I went into the dentist and made an appointment for an initial examination. I explained to my colleague why I would soon be taking quite a lot of time away from the desk. “Really? So when did you last go to the dentist?” “Well…you remember Boney M?…”
When I at last got in the chair and opened wide the dentist must have thought she was Aladdin peering in the Cave of Wonders. There was a lot of work to do: fillings, extractions, root canal surgery. There were many appointments over a few weeks. And it wasn’t actually that bad. They were careful and empathetic. Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t fun either, but I found that if I forced my mind to wander, the time soon passed. I also felt a bit proud of facing up to my fear, although everyone else had been seeing their dentists every six months without any fuss for decades. Before long I was able to revert to routine dental care.
Happily the team at Rosebank Dental Surgery are also first class. I am attended to by a team of gentle and skilful women, and the ghost of Mr R has been driven from the building. My dental anxiety levels have lowered: I’m down to about a 6 now. As I write this under lockdown, I’ve had to miss a hygienist’s appointment and I’ll soon miss a checkup. But don’t worry, I’ll attend those appointments when I can, and in the meantime I’m flossing and brushing like a pro. I know I’ll never have gleaming perfect white film star gnashers, but I’d like to still be eating steak to a ripe old age.
At about 5pm on February 1st 1971, Rob and I got off the 335 bus and started walking home up the rough surface of Park Avenue. We were surprised to see Mum and Dad walking to meet us. We knew something had happened. When we reached them, they told us that Sallie – our grandma, or Nana as we called her – had died. We would soon learn much more about her.
Sallie and her husbandJack had lived at 22 Malpas Road in Wallasey, a neat little road with low brick walls and tiled front paths. Mum would often take Rob and me there on the train for a week in the summer holidays: Dad’s miserly allowance of holiday precluded him from making the trip. I remember it as a modest but tidy house. There were few toys there, but I remember Jack finding a strong magnet and some paper clips which kept us amused for some time. Mum would often take us to the beach at New Brighton: once I remember her getting us home in a violent thunderstorm. She was probably more scared than we were. Mum would be sure to arrange to meet up in Liverpool with her best friend Speff, who sealed the affection of her godchildren with generous presents.
In 1963 our Dad’s mother, known to us as Nain, fell ill. Mum and Dad planned to move from Oxhey to a larger house in Chorleywood, intending to bring Nain and Taid – Dad’s parents – from Dolgellau to live with us. But Nain died in December, and when our move went through early the next year, Taid decided he would rather stay in Wales. It was decided to invite our other grandparents, Sallie and Jack instead, and they arrived some time in the summer of 1964. Soon after we got a dachshund, named Tumbi after the dachshund she had owned in Wallasey, in turn named after a dog Philip had encountered on service in India.
Mum was a qualified nurse and a dutiful daughter, and although both her parents were in good health, she was no doubt motivated by a wish to be sure they were properly cared for in their old age. But it probably didn’t hurt that they could also help to look after the children: we would have been about eleven and eight years old.
Sallie was a small, warm and cuddly woman with soft features. Her hair had been white for many years. In contrast to the shy Jack, she was chatty and sociable. She was always vague about her age – I don’t for example recall an eightieth birthday celebration – and about the date and number of their wedding anniversaries. Later we would find out why.
But I know that she was 77 when they came to live with us, and she had lived long enough and been through enough that she no longer cared – if she ever did – what people thought of her. She could be blunt to the point of rudeness, and made instant judgements about people on very little information, but was seldom wrong.
On being told that the man engaged to her niece was a lay preacher, she opined “Lay preachers! Hypocrites, the lot of them!”
On meeting the charming and pretty girlfriend Rob brought home, Sallie offered her view to Mum, at high volume: “A shallow girl!”
She was older than Jack, and once told Mum that marriages were better when the woman is older. I wondered what Mum, five years younger than Dad, was supposed to say to that.
Here are some of Sallie’s sayings:
“Drink plenty water!” “I’ll believe you, thousands wouldn’t!” “Would I thump!” (as in “would I hell!”)
“Stir it and stump it, and blow your own trumpet, or trust me, you haven’t a chance!” (From Gilbert and Sullivan’s Ruddigore) “Go on Kath, it won’t hurt the boy!” (when being an indulgent grandma). “Can’t stand the man!” when the wrong person appeared on television.
Here are some of the things Sallie did:
She sat rocking her chair, passing comment on the television news. She drank tea from her favourite floral design china cup and saucer. She washed her hair using rainwater collected in a metal pail, because she didn’t like using our hard water. She put her false teeth in a glass of water with Steradent by her bed every night. She talked politics with Mrs Caradine when she came for tea, especially at election time. (Both were strong labour supporters.) She walked Tumbi through the woods and over Chorleywood common. She squashed chocolates between her thumb and forefinger to test if they were hard or soft. (luckily she liked the soft ones). She set a fire in the dustbin when the contents were overflowing. She surreptitiously fed Tumbi with cake at tea time and scraps from her plate at dinner time, thus encouraging the dog’s appalling table manners. She knitted jumpers for Rob and me. She smoked the occasional cigarette, always with the appearance of a novice smoker and a guilty schoolgirl. Very occasional, compared to Mum’s forty a day.
Here are some of the people and things Sallie liked:
Harold Wilson (She was very excited to go to hear him speak in Watford) Pears Soap Harry Worth Dachshunds, preferably black and tan Danny Kaye Songs of Praise Wordsworth An occasional sherry Rose’s Lime Jelly Tennyson George Eliot
Here are some of the people and things Sallie did not like
The Rolling Stones (“dirty!”) Jimmy Savile (“horrible man!” – my god, how right she was) The Queen Mother (“waving all the time, with that silly grin on her face!”) Loud music coming from our bedroom (“thump thump thump – it sounds like the washing machine! They all sound the same!”) Edward Heath
Sallie’s natural sociability no doubt eased her transition to life down south, although Jack sometimes seemed ill at ease. Life in our home was harmonious for a few years: Sallie made cakes, knitted, read books and drank tea. Jack, who had been a ship’s carpenter, made beautiful and useful things out of wood, and carried out the more skilful part of the work in building a swimming pool in our back garden.
In 1968 Jack became ill with arteriosclerosis, and he was moved to the downstairs living room where Sallie and Mum nursed him with dedication. This must have been physically and emotionally exhausting for both mother and daughter, and they may have felt some relief when his struggle ended.
Sallie outlived her husband by two years, a period I remember as turbulent. Mum didn’t enjoy sharing her kitchen with Sallie – perhaps jealous of her more confident cake baking skills. Rob recalls a ferocious argument when Sallie secretly baked a sponge cake and stashed it under her bed. Mum was upset at the suggestion that her cakes weren’t good enough.
For Mum the combination of friction with her mother, the arrival of the menopause, an overactive thyroid and differences with Rob – now going through a lively adolescence – could make an explosive mixture. Dad, Tumbi and I tried to keep our heads down.
The day Sallie died, our cleaning lady Mrs Galloway, known to us as “Gorgeous Gus” found her in her favourite rocking chair, with Tumbi at her feet.
After Jack died, Sallie told Mum part of their history which she hadn’t shared before, and when Sallie died, Mum in turn shared it with Rob and me, now 17 and 14. Jack had not been her first husband: she had previously been married to David, known as Davy. Her older brother Tom, fighting in the Great War, met Jack and brought him home to meet his family, and Sallie must have taken a fancy to him. She left Davy and went to live with Jack, causing quite a scandal. Her divorce from Davy took some years to come through, and Mum told us that her parents were married between the birth of her brother Philip and her own birth.
I found it difficult to picture my kindly white-haired grandma getting up to these shenanigans, but Rob and I enjoyed the romance of the story and imagined the handsome young Jack rescuing Sallie from Davy’s evil clutches.
Sarah Emily Cooper was born on 19 March 1887 in Chirk, just inside Wales. Her father John Cooper was a brick and tile maker who had moved there from the Potteries in Staffordshire.
Sallie had two older brothers, Dick and Tom, and an older sister Bella. When Sallie was just fifteen months old, her mother Alice died of typhoid fever. John was left with four children to care for, and it appears that Alice’s mother Sarah came to help out. But she developed cancer of the womb, and it might have been with her encouragement that Alice‘s younger sister Edie moved in – probably in the early 1890s – and became John’s common law wife. They couldn’t be officially wed, because until 1907 it was illegal for a widower to marry his deceased wife’s sister.
(This prohibition arose from canon law, which regarded brothers-in-law and sisters-in-law as siblings, and hence viewed sex between them as immoral. From the 1860s onwards there was a campaign to get this archaic law repealed, along with the corresponding law prohibiting a widow from marrying her deceased husband’s brother. This became such a perennial theme that Gilbert and Sullivan satirised it in Iolanthe, in which the Queen of the Fairies sings:
He shall prick that annual blister Marriage with deceased wife’s sister.)
Edie had two children of her own from her first marriage, and it seems there was no room for the two younger girls with their father and their stepmother/auntie. Bella was sent to live with her aunt Annie and her husband John Stanford, a prosperous couple in Wrexham. Sallie was not so lucky. She and her brothers were sent to live with their Uncle Tom – Alice’s brother, and his sister – her auntie Emily, who was disabled, and worked as a seamstress.
So before she was seven, Sallie had lost her mother, been sent away from her father, and separated from her closest sibling, Bella. The three children were now living with an uncle and auntie who may well have resented their new responsibilities. By all accounts, hers was not a happy childhood.
Tom never married. He was a coalminer, and apparently a heavy drinker. Sallie is said to have hated him. One story is that Tom would walk for miles to reach England go to the pub – at the time pubs in Wales were closed by law on Sundays – and his route back took him over the Chirk Aqueduct on the Llangollen Canal, perhaps arriving home in a foul mood. Mum said Sallie used to pray for him to fall drunkenly to his death.
In 1910 at the age of 23 she married Davy Hughes, described as a terracotta model maker. Surprisingly the 1911 census shows them both living with Tom and Emily, when they might have had better options. Family stories do not support the evil persona Rob and I had invented for Davy, instead painting him as sweet natured and gentle, happy to give Sallie’s niece Marjorie a ride on his bike.
Sallie and Davy had no children. Perhaps they were happy together for a while, but when her brother Tom came back from the war and introduced his friend, Sallie must have seen something in Jack that won her over.
In 1920 she left Davy for Jack. This was not an easy choice for her. Her behaviour was regarded as scandalous, and was frowned upon by some in her own family. But Bella was supportive, even at the cost of fierce arguments with her husband Ernest, and the two sisters remained close until Bella’s death in 1956. Davy sued for divorce, and the papers, describing events of a hundred years ago, are interesting reading.
I now see Chester and Runcorn in a new light.
Sallie and Jack set up home together: Philip was born in 1922, and Kath (my Mum) in 1925. Kath was so small at birth that the midwife doubted her chances of survival, and prepared the couple for bad news.
The divorce was a lengthy process, and was not finalised until January 1927. Two weeks later when they married, Sallie gave her age as 34, shaving off five years, and perhaps Jack never knew her true age. Hence her reticence on the subject.
Years later when Jack died, Sallie must have decided that Philip and Kath should hear the story of her first marriage from her, rather than perhaps from their older cousins Marjorie and Mollie. Kath now understood Sallie’s vagueness about their wedding date. But Sallie still didn’t quite tell her the full story: in her later years Kath always believed that she was born after her parents were married, and this seemed important to her in an old-fashioned way. Perhaps Sallie was sparing her feelings.
It appears that Sallie and Jack tried hard to conceal their “scandalous” history from their children – not, I imagine, out of shame – it was just love – but to protect Philip and Kath from feeling any stigma. According to her niece Maureen, Sallie burned all her old photographs, presumably to prevent her children finding them and asking awkward questions.
A couple of years ago, my daughter drew my attention to an intriguing dedication inside a volume of Tennyson’s poems which we had passed on to her.
Why would Jack dedicate the book to his “wife” Sallie in 1919, when she was still married to Davy and living with him? Perhaps he was promising Sallie that he would marry her when he could. But probably this inscription was added or amended retrospectively to deflect questions about the date of their marriage.
Without question, their life was tough, and Jack often struggled to find work in the shipyards during the depression. But they worked hard and were frugal, and my Mum’s stories from childhood suggested little money but no shortage of love and care. Sallie loved reading, and set much store in the value of education. This attitude bore rich fruit, especially in Philip, who became a Professor of English Literature and a world renowned authority on Shakespeare.
By the time of my first memories of visiting Sallie and Jack, they seemed settled and content. As Sallie lived with us for seven years – and because she had a strong personality – she is the grandparent I recall most vividly. She was ruthless when she encountered dishonesty or pretension, and – at least at the age I knew her – made no effort to be tactful. She made rapid judgements about people, but was fiercely loyal to friends and family. She was a warm and kind person, and a loving and much loved grandma. I never knew how much she’d been through.
Mum thought she was doing me a favour, and perhaps she was. Shopping in Rickmansworth one Saturday morning she had seen a notice at the newsagent: Paperboys/girls required. The same afternoon I was signing up for duty. It wasn’t perfect – the nearest available round was Bridle Lane in Loudwater, a hilly two miles from our home in Chestnut Avenue. But it paid thirty shillings a week – one pound ten! That was better than five bob pocket money.
It was November, and the dark mornings had arrived. Next morning I switched on my battery lamps and cycled down the rough of Park Avenue, freewheeling joyfully down Troutstream Way, and pedalling laboriously up the other side until my legs could do no more, and I had to get off and push. Mr Ward met me there and showed me the round: Bridle Lane was, and is, a genteel and quirky private road, with names not numbers if you please, and more than its share of thatched roofs and swimming pools. Presumably the children who lived there had no need of extra pocket money, or else attended boarding schools. “This can be a great job” Mr Ward confided, “when you’re up before everyone else, and the sun is shining. When it’s cold and wet, though…”. He showed me the hidden entrances and pointed out where the aggressive dogs lived. “Get it done by eight during the week, nine at the weekends.”
A few weeks in, I found a manilla envelope sellotaped to one of the front doors, marked For the Paper Boy. Inside was a ten shilling note. A decent Christmas tip for about twenty deliveries.
But the first winter was tough. The roads were frequently icy so I had to take the downhill very gingerly. Going up Troutstream Way there was grand looking house with a large window, showing a rich red carpet adorning two flights of stairs. It looked so warm and luxurious in there, I felt like an orphan boy, shut out in the cold.
And there was a girl, a pretty one, who rode with her bag of papers in the opposite direction, but we didn’t acknowledge each other. I invented scenarios where she had fallen off her bike and I came to her rescue, but it didn’t happen.
By the time I had reached Bridle Lane, my fingers were numb from clutching the handlebars, and could barely open the stack of papers, or separate them. The only effective remedy, I found, was sheepskin mittens.
Sometimes if Watford had been playing the night before, I would pounce on the pile, and pull out a tabloid to find the score inside the back page – back then newspapers actually contained news, sometimes. I would also make straight for the Daily Sketch, so I could read Peanuts.
If a customer had cancelled their papers for a holiday, still half asleep I might accidentally put the next paper in the stack through their door, at which I cursed myself. I hated to get it wrong. Someone complained that their paper was soaking wet on delivery, and I worked out that, on rainy days, it might be better to keep the paper in the bag until I reached the front door.
Sundays were good and bad. Good, because I had an extra hour in bed. Bad, because the papers were huge, especially the Sunday Times. At least they seemed huge to a small thirteen year old boy, and the narrow bag strap cut into my shoulder. If a house had a tiny letterbox, sorry but the paper was left on the doorstep, rain or shine. Fridays were heavy too, back when everyone took the Watford Observer.
We never took a bath in the morning back then, and a shower was just something I had at school after rugby. I just got back from a forty minute paper round plus a strenuous four mile bike ride in my school clothes, washed my hands – filthy from newsprint if I wasn’t wearing gloves – ate breakfast and went off to school. Did I stink? In winter probably, in summer definitely, but hey, all the boys did in those days.
Saturdays were the best. The start was late and the stack was light. And I could pick up my pay in Rickmansworth. It seemed like a fortune. I think now I should have spent it on adventures with friends, bought classic pop records, even spent it on girlfriends if only, but I was a prudent little fellow and “invested” it in my coin collection, convinced that the old coinage would soar in value after decimalisation. I still have the collection, and I’m still waiting.
Cycling four miles each morning before breakfast must have made me fitter, but I was envious of my older brother Rob, who had taken on the paper round in our road for a rival newsagent. He just had to roll out of bed and walk for five minutes to pick up his papers: sometimes I wondered if he finished the round without waking up. So I asked Mr Ward to let me know if the round in our road came free. At last it did, so I quit the Bridle Lane round and took it over. My pay went down by one sixth but the time went down by one third, and Rob and I would pass each other in the road with our bags.
Eventually, with his A-levels approaching, Rob decided to give up his round. The opportunism and ruthlessness later to characterise my business career was already taking shape, and with his cooperation I hatched a plan. Without either of us telling the shop, I took over his deliveries for two weeks, and turned up at the newsagent in Chorleywood – then on the corner of the Rickmansworth Road and Solesbridge Lane – to claim my pay.
The shop was run by a sour-faced lady with a disconcerting habit of shaking her head doubtfully while you were addressing her. At first she demurred, but I explained that Rob had quit, and I had already been doing the round for a fortnight. Her small eyes narrowed in concentration, and she must have reasoned that, indeed, the pay had not been collected, there had been no complaints from customers, and that I had saved her the inconvenience of finding someone else for the round. The job was mine, and at just fifteen, I controlled the newspaper delivery racket in Chestnut Avenue.
I experimented with doubling up: I put one bag on each shoulder and tried to complete both deliveries in one circuit, but I limped like an overburdened mule, and on Sundays the weight was impossible. In addition I would frequently have to retrace my steps when I forgot to check one of the bags for the next delivery. In the end, scientific study showed that it was no slower, and much easier, to do the rounds sequentially.
This had consequences for the disgruntled customer who, leaving for work unreasonably early, complained that his Telegraph was often arriving too late. I offered a perfunctory apology and walked on. He must have escalated his complaint to the shop, who probably reassured him that the delivery was being made before the required deadline. Soon his daily paper appeared in the rival newsagent’s stack: sadly for him this was the batch I delivered second. I like to think he saw me walk past his house, knowing that it would be another half hour before I got round to bringing him his paper. That’s what you get.
Power corrupts, they say, and hubris was setting in. There was a local evening paper, the Evening Echo, and we had a daily delivery by car. I couldn’t tolerate the presence of these incomers on my territory, so I volunteered to take it over. I was shown the round on a driving tour of Chorleywood and half of Rickmansworth, four miles, perhaps, with deliveries to about fifteen houses, dotted around the Rickmansworth Alps of Valley Road, the Clump and the Drive. It took two fellows to give me this tour: perhaps one fellow was showing me the ropes, and showing the other fellow how to show the ropes to other fellows.
Echo newsboys and newsgirls collected the money from each subscriber on Friday evening, and handed it over at base camp less their bit of pay, so pay was proportional to the number of houses on the round. With the help of a sales promotion, I hatched what seemed a brilliant business plan. I energetically canvassed my road for new subscribers, and signed up about ten. Then I toured round to the five most isolated and awkward houses on the route, and informed them that deliveries would be discontinued. I had turned a widely scattered round with fifteen subscribers into a compact one with twenty. Brilliant, no?
You might have spotted the flaw in my plan. When I returned to base next Friday, I was given one week’s money in lieu, and told that my services were no longer required. A customer had kicked up a fuss at being told he couldn’t have the Echo delivered, and the sales team had taken his side. I learned, perhaps, that the smartest business plan will fail if it upsets customers.
About this time my grandfather, a retired headmaster, expressed in a letter to my parents his disapproval at me having three paper rounds, and his concern that I might be too busy and too tired to apply myself properly to my studies. Ah, that’s why I couldn’t do calculus. Still, it gave me cover to make a graceful retreat.
By now my own A-levels were approaching, but there was still time for one more experiment on my remaining rounds in my Chestnut Avenue laboratory. I learned that some school-friends distributed Christmas cards on about the 10th December, to remind their customers that t’was the season to be generous. Cynical? I suppose. More cynical, though, (but perhaps it could be excused as a contribution to economic science?) would be to distribute cards only to the even numbers, and then keep a careful tally of the returns.
I estimated that the delivery of a cheap Christmas card boosted tips by an average of about 50%, which was nice to have, but this insight came too late to be useful, because before long I hung up the old shoulder bags for good. And that would have been that, but for Mrs H, a family friend who lived at number 45. She had heard that her friend across the road had received a Christmas card from the paperboy, and enquired gently with my parents whether she had upset me in some way. Er, no, sorry about that, Mrs H.
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
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.
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.
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
In 2008 I made the winning bid at a charity auction in aid of the Watford Peace Hospice – tea or coffee for two at the House of Commons with David Gauke, at the time serving his first term as our local MP, now Lord Chancellor, if you please. My fourteen year old daughter was starting to take an interest in politics, so she was happy to come as my plus one.
We cleared the heavy security, and were taken in to meet Mr Gauke. A relaxed but slightly awkward conversation ensued, typical, I imagine, of the occasions when a politician is fulfilling his charitable commitments. He sought confirmation that the Peace Hospice was a worthy charity to support, and I agreed – my mother had been a satisfied customer the previous year.
David Cameron had become Conservative leader early in the parliament, promising an end to “Punch and Judy politics” but within a few weeks PMQs had descended into the usual juvenile knockabout. I asked about this: he replied that if politics was too civilised and consensual, the public might lose interest. I thought I’d be willing to give it a try.
I raised the issue I felt most strongly about: the Iraq war. His predecessor as our MP, also a Conservative, had voted against it, and I asked Gauke for his views. He said given the information available at the time, he would have voted for the invasion. I wasn’t sure whether he was being bravely honest or misguided: by now, in the messy aftermath, the consensus view was that the war had been a dreadful mistake. It would have been easy for him to adopt a safer opinion retrospectively.
At this point the waiter managed to spill a decent quantity of coffee into my lap. Fortunately it wasn’t scalding, but I still wonder whether this was in response to a prearranged signal.
As we were coming away, my daughter pointed out that what was available at the time of the Iraq war wasn’t information, it was misinformation and outright lies. Good point. I wish she’d said that to him, but she was a little overawed by the occasion.
We requested gallery tickets for the afternoon session in the Commons, and he came to get them for us. He looked deflated when the official behind the counter had to ask for his name, the new kid in class.
We watched David Cameron score points with ominous ease against Gordon Brown in a routine debate, then I attempted to reward my daughter after a slightly heavy day with a trip to the London Aquarium, but we were the first people turned away at closing time. My souvenir of the day was a miniature House of Commons wine bottle, which adorned our mantelpiece for years, festooned with drunken Kermit.
I have the gift of a memorable face, and Gauke recognised me on the Common a few weeks later. We noted that we would have to agree to differ on the matter of Iraq.
Sathi’s Indian Restaurant in Chorleywood decided a few years ago to address the problem of takeaway customers hovering over their dining clientele by adding a separate waiting room where they could present customers with a lager to ease the boredom of their wait.
After the Brexit vote, in a gesture of defiance I purchased an EU tee shirt with the yellow stars on a blue field, and wore it when I went to pick up our meal. And there he was with his son, collecting a takeaway like a normal person. He nodded and raised his eyebrows when he saw my shirt. I said I was unsure about wearing it, but he assured me that I should be all right in Chorleywood, maybe not to wear it in South Oxhey. “So”, I said, “are you guys going to sort this out?” He smiled ruefully. He was fully aware how horribly Cameron’s gamble had backfired.
As I write he is one of the few (relatively) moderate and pragmatic politicians who might help save Britain from a disastrous no-deal Brexit. Or better still, cancel the whole stupid idea. Cometh the hour, cometh the man, they say. And who knows, before long St James’s Park might be reborn as Gaukey Park in his honour. I can hope.
It started off as one of those little jokes, those tricks so many parents play on their children to try to persuade them to take a little exercise.
After roast beef and Yorkshire pudding with Nana and Grandad, and once the dishwasher was happily chugging away, we tried a strategy to get our little darlings tired out by bedtime.
“Who wants to explore No Dragon Wood?”
Rachel and Alice cried out in enthusiasm, tempted, as we hoped, by the exotic promise of the name. So we set off, and it was only when we reached the wood that Rachel thought to ask us –
“Why’s it called No Dragon Wood?”
“Because there are no dragons here.”
She mulled this for a few seconds, and I sensed she was considering a complaint. But the logic in my answer persuaded her, and by now she was enjoying the outing. She giggled and carried on walking.
Of course a trick like that works just once, but as the girls grew older they discovered for themselves that a walk in the country could be enjoyed, and the route through No Dragon Wood – which continued to be shown on maps with the less romantic name of Bottom Wood – was a frequently chosen option.
There may have been no dragons, but I felt sometimes there was magic of a kind there. It nestled close by the M25, and the roar of that mighty motorway was ever present, louder still in winter. Perhaps this discouraged other visitors, but for me the place had an eye-of-the-storm peace. And there were very few houses nearby, putting it out of reach of all but the most energetic dog walkers. This meant that if one of these more energetic walkers, to give a random example, had a mind to sing loudly as he walked his Labrador through the wood, he could be fairly confident that none but the dog would notice. It was rare to meet another human there.
And perhaps the path through the wood once followed a regular course, but it was rarely maintained, relying on the few feet that walked there to improvise new routes around the many fallen trees. So it now wound its way up through the woods in drunken swirls, with moss-covered logs frequently strewn across.
Alice even used it for an art project, writing stories and making strange videos based on No Dragon Wood. It had become embedded in family mythology. So when one day I saw that the battered old stile had been replaced by a smart new metal kissing gate, I sensed an opportunity.
I sought out the fellow who administered the Chiltern Society’s Donate-a-Gate scheme, to ask whether a plaque with some appropriate wording could be attached to the new gate. I explained the story, and suggested that a more whimsical inscription might make a change from the many sombre benches and gates in memory of much missed Grandma, who loved to walk in these woods. He was very helpful, and gave me the good news that although his scheme was focused on central Buckinghamshire, and the gate was actually a short distance into Hertfordshire, the Society was on this occasion prepared to make an exception and take my money.
I consulted the family on the wording, and Rachel came up with an extra line – “No dragon related incidents since 1415” – a phrase heavy with its unanswered question, and which hinted at the impossibility of proving the negative.
And the plaque was duly installed and celebrated. We have walked through that gate many times in the last few years, congratulating ourselves on our little joke.
But this evening my wife and I are on the M25, heading home after a short break on the south coast, and we run into stationary traffic: we are being diverted off the motorway one junction short of our destination. As we inch towards the exit, we can see armed police by the roadside, police helicopters, huge military helicopters, and in the distance, just to the left of the motorway, a huge plume of smoke rising into the air.
From Chorleywood, take the track beside the Stag pub and turn left along the path at the back of Heronsgate: when you reach the field adjoining the M25 walk diagonally downhill to the stile at the edge of the woods. From Mill End follow Long Lane and take the path on the left across a field, leading under Denham Way and up to the M25 footbridge: then follow the path diagonally left down to the stile. From Maple Cross use Chalfont Road or walk through Woodoaks Farm to the M25 footbridge. Fire extinguishers optional.