Scroll down to find the piece that interests you
1 I Could Have Been
2 Chris Grayling on Chris Grayling
3 Sex, Driving and the Like Button
4 A Lifetime of Exercise
5 Andy Murray
7 Unrealistic Sex on Television
7 Pick Up the Phone
I Could Have Been
Well, many things…for a start, I might not have even been English but, oddly, Japanese or American. My mother’s parents met below stairs – you know, like in Downton Abbey - he was the Japanese valet and she the Norfolk cook to some roaring twenties Richard Branson type. If they had gone back East who knows?
Twenty years later and WW2 comes along: my mum meets a GI and, hey presto, my older half-brother is born. If the GI had done the decent thing and taken her back home I could have grown up obese and riddled with guilt brought on by an evangelical upbringing and an inability to stop wanking. My half-brother was given up for adoption and now speaks Hampshire rather than Californian.
So, my mother marries a bounder instead of the (it turns out) alcoholic Yank and my other one-hundred-percent brother and I are brought up by the seaside in Devon. She does it alone with grit and determination and hard work in a one bedroomed flat. I fail the eleven plus, but, at Dawlish Secondary Modern, for some unknown reason, I learn to love education. My mum likes it when my teachers say good things about me. I like it. I go to Teignmouth Grammar in the sixth form and complete my escape from the parochialism and limited ambition of my Dawlish classmates by going to University. I could have, should have probably, stayed in Dawlish and got a job along with everyone else. Thanks mum.
After graduating I could have been a banker, a fat cat. I had accepted a place on Nat West’s graduate training scheme and was ready to start collecting my bonuses. But I never did join Nat West – I’d like to say it was a sense of unfinished business with mathematics but it was probably that I liked being a student too much. You make your own schedule, you investigate stuff no one else or, at least, very few know about and, in those days, the government pays. There was also a girl…
I did teacher training in order to complete my set of student grants – I also needed the studying time to finish my thesis – but becoming a teacher seemed logical. I wasn’t good enough to be a professional academic and looking ahead I realised I was so used to having long holidays that teaching was the only viable option.
And that’s it. I haven’t been nearly hit by a meteorite or miraculously survived a terminal illness so I can’t say I could have been dead. Conversely, I haven’t won the lottery which would have opened up another world of endless possibilities. The truth is somewhere in the middle. I’ve undoubtedly been lucky, as you have to be to prosper in an unfeeling world. But, having said that, what and where I am today is almost entirely down to the decisions I’ve made since school. So I only have myself to blame.
Chris Grayling on Chris Grayling MP
Look I’ll come clean – I’m not the politician. I’m just an ordinary member of the public who gave up full time teaching a few years ago to spend more time sitting around. I’ve written a couple of books, renovated a house, watched a lot of football and played too much badminton when I wasn’t slumped on the sofa but a man has to do something. Up until a few weeks ago The Justice Secretary was, to me, just another politician, albeit one with whom I shared the same name. I was vaguely aware through Twitter that he wasn’t particularly popular with lawyers up and down the country just as Michael Gove is as beloved of teachers as a clairvoyant at a meeting of the Royal Society, but that’s all.
My wife is a teacher and school governor and I still do a token amount of part-time A level teaching. I have, therefore, an intimate understanding of the full horror of the impact that Gove is having on state school education. Teachers are demoralised and constantly distracted from their primary role in the class room by his buffoonery. It is as if Nicholas Parsons had taken over as CEO at Microsoft. Where the law profession is concerned, however, I know next to nothing so I’ll admit at the outset that I’m vastly unqualified to write this blog. Someone just asked me.
As an outsider to the law profession it seems to me that Grayling’s approach is somewhat similar to Gove. Like Mad Michael, his initiatives are driven by a transparent lack of understanding of the department he oversees perhaps with one significant difference. Whereas Gove is motivated almost exclusively by misguided ideological convictions underpinned by the unchanging Tory belief in market forces, Grayling’s motivations seem almost totally focused on the latter. He appears to possess an almost psychopathic desire to reduce costs. Nothing else matters so long as he delivers a smaller budget and to that end his ministry expends vast amount of energy justifying the cuts.
So what do those figures tell us about expenditure on the legal system in England and Wales? At least this is something, as a mathematician, I can try to understand with some degree of optimism. And what figures? Do I go to the MoJ with any confidence or elsewhere?
Before I get to all that I note that the MoJ have focussed on the cost of the legal aid budget in their proposals. Clearly the authors of this documentation had a rather understandable motive – essentially they tried to show that lawyers were overpaid bastards and that as a country we pay more than anywhere else for the privilege of getting justice in a free society. Fair play – if I was Chris Grayling, who I’m not, it would seem like a winning tactic.
And it’s easy to do that sort of stuff with statistics. Most people haven’t, for example, the faintest notion what a square root is let alone the difference between medians and means or the relative size of a billion and so on. They just run with their prejudices and try to disguise the glazed looks in their eyes.
So, quickly, two examples of how the MoJ played fast and loose with the legal aid budget and average lawyers’ salaries. Firstly, they claimed that at £2.1 billion the legal aid budget was the most expensive in the world or something like that. They backed up this figure with a few per capita numbers and £38 per head per year made it look like we were paying way over the odds.
Right, we can disregard the £2.1 billion straight away because the size of the country in question obviously matters – I’d be nervous if our overall budget wasn’t more than, say, Luxembourg’s. The £38 looks more convincing until you set it in the context of the overall cost of the legal system in this country. I’ll do that below but it’s worth mentioning that about forty quid a year insurance for protection against wrongful conviction and so on doesn’t seem that expensive to me.
Secondly, the MoJ tried to big up lawyers’ take home pay. It certainly wouldn’t hurt to reinforce the widely held view that you lot in the legal profession were still as avaricious as you were in Charles Dicken’s day would it? And yes, it seems your average pay was around £84 000 pa! Wow, that’s not bad until you realise the MoJ were using the mean as the average rather than the median. Take the five numbers 20 000, 30 000, 30 000, 40 000 and 180 000 for example. The median is the middle number when they’re in order – in this case 30 000 and a reasonable reflection of the average of the salaries. If we calculate the mean, however, the fat cat on 180 000 bumps the answer up to 60 000 – not such a good indicator of the average of the five salaries.
No, what we really need to know is how much the UK spends on its overall legal budget per capita taking into account the GDP or overall wealth of the country. The latest reliable figure for this comes courtesy of the 2012 report of the EU’s Commission for the Efficiency of Justice1 whose figures relate to 2010.
We find that overall the UK (England and Wales) spent 0.37% (about a third of one percent) of GDP per capita on courts, public prosecutions and legal aid, lying 12th out of 41 states, hardly suggesting that as a country we are hugely overspending on our legal system. For me, a humble Ph D in maths, that just about clinches any argument about the cost of the UK’s legal system. It’s a little above average and shows we prioritise the rule of law in a reassuring way.
In conclusion, the use of statistics by the MoJ is flawed. As a nation we are not spending more than other developed countries on our legal system and it is dishonest to suggest that we are. Speaking personally, I am proud that I live in a country where the legal system is there to protect me when I may not be able to pay for it myself. If this privilege goes it feels like the undermining of a fundamental freedom in a tolerant and civilised society.
1) The European Commission for the Efficiency of Justice: 2012 Evaluation Report.
Sex, Driving and the Like Button
I’m going to let you into a secret – you can actually tell how good a man is in bed by the way they drive. This is a bold claim and one that most of you are, quite understandably, reacting to rather negatively but remember that new theories, unlike politics, should be approached with an open mind.
Perhaps an obvious place to start is with slow drivers of which there are several categories. Probably the first that springs to mind are the individuals who think that driving along an A road at a speed of less than 40 mph is acceptable behaviour. Discussing these chaps’ skill in the bedroom is a moot point because men driving like this never get laid. If they have children, there is a good chance they were fathered by others. Generally speaking, slow drivers are mean, lacking in imagination and balls-achingly tedious.
There are many varieties of slow driver. A subdivision of the above group are the ones that drive at a snail’s pace but immediately put their foot down as soon as one attempts to overtake them. These are the men with hard luck stories - overlooked at work or divorced by frustrated wives because of their plodding but passive aggressive personalities.
Another subset are the ones who brake regularly at the slightest provocation such as a car coming the other way, happening upon the merest bend in the road or approaching a roundabout devoid of all other traffic. These men are essentially lacking in confidence at the deepest level. Fearful of the unexpected, these types prefer masturbation to real women.
I could go on. About tail-gaters - they brag a lot to distract from erectile dysfunction. Or middle-lane-hoggers - very inconsiderate lovers with over-indulgent mothers and/or an affiliation to male dominated religious belief. And all the others that display their inadequacies while on the road. But I won’t because, well, life is too short and I want to get to something else.
What I’m really interested in here is people’s behaviour on Facebook. I’ve had this particular rant coming to maturity for a few years now but have never quite had the time to collect my thoughts together. Essentially, my thesis is similar, if less specific, to what it was for driving – that men or women can be pretty well known just from their Facebook interactions.
And I don’t mean the bleedin’ obvious. You don’t have to have a Ph. D in anthropology to know your friends’ personal political affiliations or what their interests and tastes are – you can just read their posts. I am fully aware, for example, who are the fascists, animal lovers and music obsessives among my friends.
No, what I’d like to explore here are the subtle nuances in our characters as revealed by our use of the like button. I’ll come clean – I’m a serial liker. If I see something a friend has posted, I’ll often press the button to show them I’ve seen the post and I’m on their side. I’m not being disingenuous – it’s just the way I am.
So why am I such a pussycat on social media? Well, actually I’m not – I delete or unfollow ‘friends’ at regular intervals – but I happen to believe that Facebook is, by and large, a place to be nice and to amuse and, most of all, interact. The relationships are consensual – we got into this together because, at least as far as I was concerned, I wanted to be on Facebook with you.
And this is what I can’t understand – why do so many of the people I accepted as ‘friends’ turn out to be such miserable bastards when they go online? What drives their Scrooge-like approach to the like button? I’ll be frank; I’m of the view that if you’re a generous and supportive person you press like a lot. Which begs the question: what if you don’t?
The first reason, I suppose, must be a basic lack of empathy or emotional intelligence. In case you’re wondering, those are faults.
Or pressing like for you is a BIG DEAL - it takes a lot to IMPRESS you. Oh do get over yourself.
Or, it might be that it never crosses your mind to like? That makes you thoughtless.
Or maybe you don’t have a sense of humour? God help whoever you live with except you’re probably alone.
Or, maybe you’re the equivalent of the slow driver who hates being overtaken by someone going faster? Yes, you’re empathetic, have a GSOH and you know about the power of the like button. But you still don’t like because you can’t bear to encourage or be generous to people whose lives seem to be going faster than yours. How did you get to be so bitter?
Other reasons - God knows - you decide. For now, I rest my case – feel free to delete me before I get to you!
PS Some of you won’t know that by holding down the like button you now have a range of emotions to express. Check it out!
A Lifetime of Exercise
One thing we can all be sure about is death. Mercifully, the precise moment when we shuffle off our mortal coils is usually unknown to us, but at some point our days must inevitably run out. If there were a God and, perhaps, some divine equivalent of the UK’s Freedom of Information Act, it might be possible to find out exactly how we spent the currency of time during our brief sojourn on the planet:an Excel spreadsheet, say, detailing the activities that delineate our lives.
Good sense insists that time is a precious and limited resource. Sixty years might seem like a long time to a teenager but the middle-aged are profoundly aware of how wrong they are. The latter also know that most of that ostensibly huge dollop of hours cannot be spent doing what we want. If we subtract time doing stuff like sleeping, paid work, commuting, eating, washing and so on at least three quarters of it disappears, so in truth we are left with very little - a few hours a day at most - to indulge ourselves in what we really like doing.
On reflection it transpires that exercise has been one of the true constants of my life. I’ve played sport, run or attended a gym almost every day since I was fifteen. Taking badminton alone, I estimate I’ve spent, on average, about fifteen minutes a day either playing or attending matches or club nights. Add in the other sport and the figure is close to half an hour. If sex counts – I personally like to treat it as a work out - I must be up to… well, thirty-one minutes.
Leaving aside jokes about energetic bedroom activity, the question I now find myself asking is - was all the exercise I’ve done a worthwhile use of such a big chunk of my daily allowance of truly free time? Because there are downsides - a couple of dodgy joints and the growing awareness that my body is disintegrating around me - as well as the knowledge that there’s no going back to the days when I could take my body for granted. Running used to feel like floating. Not now – it requires willpower and fortitude in the face of ever diminishing returns. Physical exercise throws into stark relief a growing sense of my own mortality: losing a battle I could have ignored if I had stayed away from the running machine.
And yet, unlike other sometime life companions such as smoking and Arsenal, I can honestly say I have absolutely no regrets. I wouldn’t have missed the intoxicating feeling of effortlessly covering mile after mile on summer evenings years ago for the world. Or, even now, when being half of an exhausting shuttles rally can give me a profound sense of being alive: knowing my physical limitations rather than being ignorant of them. The future may be more Legs, Bums and Tums or Yoga classes than cross country running but, if I select my classes carefully, at least there will be attractive instructors to flirt with.
I hate watching tennis. Always have. Witnessing the plucky Brit being inexorably outclassed and pulverised at Wimbledon by the unbeatable Yank or Aussie or, lately, European has never been my idea of viewing pleasure. I’m over sixty now so I know what I’m talking about. I can still remember, for example, Dan Maskell exclaiming ‘That’s a peach of a shot,’ decades ago when everyone on the BBC who reported on tennis went to a private school and spoke like Bertie Wooster. Fred Perry, I remember, was a summariser back then and he seemed to have made something of himself because I wore his sports clothes when I was a teenager. He’d won Wimbledon back in the thirties when natural talent and being able to afford a tennis racket were the only prerequisites one needed to do well.
This reluctance to get drawn into watching sports where Brits are involved runs over into most competitions actually. My first sporting memory was watching England win the World Cup on our newly rented television and in my innocence I assumed Brits winning major sporting events was normal rather than the exception. In fact, I now know it was verging on the unique.
Yes, the succeeding decades of the twentieth century gradually disavowed me of that childish and ridiculous notion. At the Olympics one could normally count our gold medal tally on the fingers of one hand, every football and rugby finals was a disaster and sporting heroes at world level were as scarce as a British sportsman or team with balls. As a nation, excluding a few honourable exceptions, we were a sporting laughing-stock around the world.
Going back to tennis, I’m old enough also to have seen Ann Jones and Virginia Wade win the women’s singles but even those victories seemed like flukes in the face of the greater professionalism and ruthlessness of Billie-Jean King or athleticism of Martina Navratilova. Even when she won it, Ann looked like a housewife in frilly knickers bustling around the court planning on what she would be baking that evening for her husband. While Ann had other things on her mind Virginia, on the other hand, had the temperament of a super-cooled tennis ball – it looks resilient and bouncy until one little hit shatters it into a million shards of ice. If someone so much as sneezed in the crowd her resolve might dissolve for at least a set. I think she beat Betty Stove in the final, a tall Dutch lady with a big serve and a haircut women adopt when they’ve grown tired of life. Her other big weakness was in the running department – she couldn’t. Unfortunately, it still took all of Virginia’s brow furrowing concentration to remember to hit the ball six inches either side of her in order to win a point. Back then it seemed that, to Ann and Virginia, tennis was a hobby that they just happened to be very good at. I’ve no doubt that the nearest either of them ever got to training was lifting their rackets into the boots of their Volvos.
Latterly the nation was sucked into the saga of Tim Henman’s Wimbledon failures in what used to be British tennis lovers’ two-week television purgatory. To the superstitious, it may have seemed that God was using the fortnight to pay the nation back for all the sins of the British Empire. We’d got out of jail in the big things with our benign climate and stuff like world wars but where sport was concerned, whatever the situation, Henman always managed to lose.
And then came Andy Murray. This was a young man cut from a different cloth to Tim, Ann and Virginia. For a start he was an ordinary bloke from a mainstream school who filled the spaces between points with rants and expletives instead of philosophical looks into the distance. You could sense it mattered more to him than the others: he’d left home as a kid to go to Spain to go to tennis school. Failure would have meant a career as a tennis pro at some club where Tim’s dad might have been chairman, his son still being celebrated as the Brit who made a Wimbledon semi without ever possessing the ability to keep a rally going for more than eight strokes.
Already six foot three with an imposing physique Andy spent his Decembers in Miami busting a gut and the rest of the year leaving no stone unturned with his coaches and others to extract the maximum from what natural attributes he was born with. When he first started, he looked a bit skinny but he made himself into an athlete. Unlike Tim who started off skinny and still ended his career looking like Fiona Bruce could beat him at arm-wrestling.
At first, however, Murray’s determination and commitment weren’t a match for his main rivals – Federer, Nadal and Djokovic. Three of the greatest tennis players of all time. No majors arrived for Murray from turning pro in 2005 for seven years – he admitted later that he’d accepted it might never happen. The final body-blow came in 2012, aged 25, when he was crushed in the Wimbledon final by Federer. Millions were watching and hoping, but our disappointment must have been dwarfed by his own. In front of the centre court crowd and the nation be broke down in tears afterwards and, as a result, most of the unconverted took him to their hearts.
The following week he was in the audience of Mock the Week with his wife Kim. A young couple out enjoying the hilarity of the banter orchestrated by the genial Dara O’Briain. Much of it at his expense but it seemed his previous outburst of emotion and the affirmation of the Mock the Week audience and panellists convinced him of his place in our affections. Since then it seems as if he is still playing for himself but also aware that millions of his fans are behind him, enjoying this short era when somebody British can win tennis tournaments. It will soon be over so we should enjoy it while we can.
I must admit I avoided watching the Olympic final later that summer. I feared for him and couldn’t face another demoralising defeat. He’d beaten Djokovic in the semis, but anyone who’d seen the Wimbledon final must have expected Federer to triumph again. When I found out later he’d smashed Federer I was surprised. But relieved – for Murray’s own mental state as much as anything. Later that year he won the US Open title but nothing much seemed to have changed after another painful defeat in the Australian final. Perceptions take a long time to changed – I’m so accustomed to British defeats at tennis my default setting is to expect failure so I wasn’t surprised.
June 2013. Wimbledon again and after two weeks Murray and the implacable Djokovic are in the final. I watch it this time and who could forget the final point? On a sweltering afternoon, Murray is serving for the match but the relentless Djokovic won’t let go. Andy’s mum is beside herself in the stands and we’re all beginning to doubt. And then it’s all over: the crowd go berserk, the cap is ripped off and sent skywards, the racket tumbles from his grasp, his own roar of ecstasy, of finally achieving an ambition so long in coming to fruition. Deserved. No stone left unturned. We cheered – we’d shared his pain and now we can enjoy the relief, the pleasure of a victory we feared might never happen.
I never thought I’d see a Brit win the men’s singles at Wimbledon. Didn’t think Murray had what it took. But I was wrong. I didn’t see the dedication, the single-mindedness and the resulting imperceptible improvements in his game. Now, in late 2016 he is world number one after winning the World Series finals a few weeks ago. There has also been a Davis Cup and another Wimbledon crown for him. He is possibly our greatest ever sportsman and he did it against the odds during an unprecedented era of tennis royalty in the men’s game. As Nelson Mandela said: ‘Anything seems impossible until it’s done.’
I’ve resisted but it really is futile. Resisted the urge to have my tuppence-ha’penny worth on the EU referendum that is. However, in the face of the continuous and almost entirely misleading rhetoric of the pro- Brexiteers, I simply have to say something.
I’m not so naïve to think that what I write will make any difference to the way people vote. Frustratingly, minds are mostly made up in matters of politics on the basis of little more than an instinctive predisposition. My chances of making a Brexiteer see the light are on a par with me winning Wimbledon but that, thank God, doesn’t mean I have to stay silent. I am also reminded daily that people I count as friends hold the opposite view and that this piece may damage those relationships. Well, I’ve had to put up with your posts that make the Harry Potter stories look like models of historical accuracy, so maybe you’ll forgive me having an opinion that is based on fact.
I’m not going to list the many benefits of being part of the EU. They are manifest and many and are, may I add, as obvious to anyone with a functioning intellect as the sun in the sky. So, to me at least, it’s a mystery that so many are passionate about us turning our collective backs on one of the greatest achievements of the twentieth century.
I have to be frank, it seems to me that the underlying foundation of the Brexit campaign is an ill-disguised racism that, as a proud Brit, both saddens and angers me. To stay in, the argument goes, will result in unrestrained immigration combined with a terrible dilution of the power of parliament to make our own laws. And that’s basically it. Yes, that’s right, we are encouraged to vote ‘no’ because we should be afraid. Afraid that our own culture will be undermined by the bureaucrats in Brussels and a tide of foreigners coming to take our jobs and scrounge off the state.
It goes without saying that both of these reasons for Britain going it alone are as false as me claiming to be Batman, but where there’s prejudice there’s always, it seems, willing believers.
Firstly, the numbers reveal that EU and, for that matter, any other immigrants, are a net positive contributor to the economy. What we tend to do is base our prejudice on the odd sighting of a shady looking foreigner in the street or a woman in a head scarf, while forgetting that most of the characters that give cause for concern are the white trash from the UK itself. Pictures on the news fill us with dread that our own culture will be overwhelmed by a mass influx of Muslims, when the ones that are already here are, by and large, law-abiding and hard-working citizens. Have we forgotten that ours is a strong, tolerant society whose values and practices are admired and eventually adopted by those that come here? In the past week, for example, I was served in Wagamama by some delightful waiters from Eastern Europe and been treated by a charming doctor of Indian extraction. A few months ago I had solar panels installed IN A DAY by three ridiculously efficient Poles. Incidentally, I also married a second generation Irish immigrant who is as British as me. My mother, whose father was, ironically, Japanese had no time for the Irish – until she met Theresa that is.
Secondly, if you hadn’t noticed, parliament still makes almost all of our laws. The ones from the EU are those that help protect your rights, care for the environment and generally make the country a fairer place to live in. All the tosh about the EU imposing its will on the British parliament is a myth that those leading the Brexit campaign are using to manipulate a fearful British public.
There, I’ve had my say. I’m voting yes because I want to be part of a Britain that confidently plays its part in a community of nations that stands for the civilised and democratic ideals that I believe in. Europe is a beacon of hope in a dangerous world and we need to stick together. The truth is we have more in common with Germany, France, Italy and Spain and the rest than most of us do with UKIP, the right of the Tory party and the isolationist buffoons who want us out.
Unrealistic Sex on Television
Now I’ve got your attention (come on, admit it, the title was just too tempting to ignore) I can reveal that it was a week ago when this whole thorny topic got me thinking. No, Theresa hadn’t announced she wanted BBC South-East Today to film our next romantic encounter, it was our current favourite drama: I Know Who You Are that made me get out the laptop.
Incidentally, it’s a great show and you can catch it all on iPlayer if you wish. In the particular scene in question, however, the chief protagonist has a fight with his wife and they end up having what I think is usually described as ‘angry sex’. Married friends will be familiar with this sort of activity although, in my experience, it would be better described as ‘simmering resentment sex’ or ‘slightly irritated sex’. No, angry sex between two consenting adults is fine by me, but is it too much to ask that what I watch is kept within the realm of the possible?
You see, Elias thrusts his missus against a wall and hoists her up so her legs are around his waist and so on and so forth. At this point I should point out that both of them are dressed in suits and, presumably, underwear, making the mechanics of exposing, let alone engaging their mutual genitalia in this position, a non-trivial exercise. In addition, and those middle-aged men among you will chuckle in astonishment at this revelation, Elias is fifty-five.
Perhaps the writer of the scene was trying to convey the animal lust that the pair were capable of, but in doing so I’m afraid, threw all credibility out of the window. When it comes to copulating, it is a well-known fact that for couples of a certain age comfort, not spontaneity, is the number-one consideration when having a shag. To make the scene true to life, Elias’s wife would have insisted they retire to the bedroom and have it off in on the bed. Even if she hadn’t, taking a woman’s weight around one’s waist while doing the deed is really only for the younger, muscular man and then only on days when he’s feeling unusually horny and imaginative.
We now come to another of my gripes where television sex is concerned. I’ve noticed for years now that after a couple have made love, the next time we see them one or more of vests, bras, knickers and boxer shorts have miraculously appeared. For example, Elias wakes up in bed later and he’s got his vest and pants on - no! Meanwhile his wife has left, although presumably she would have slept in modest bra and knickers or even a track suit. Come on, who sleeps in their underwear anymore, especially after having sex?
So, a plea to any screen-writer out there: sex is hardly ever spontaneous and even more rarely executed up against a wall as described above. And people stay naked afterwards. My advice is to research your subject, then you won’t embarrass all of us with these ridiculous fantasies about sex.
Pick Up the Phone
Early last Friday Theresa and I left Hamstreet to drive down to Dawlish, my home town, or at least the setting for my formative years. Lucky readers of my autobiography will recognise the place and wonder what the heck had persuaded me to visit a place where I no longer had any friends.
Well, it turns out that there were a few people from down those parts, as they like to say in Devon, who still remembered the serious, irritating sod from the sixties and seventies and who, furthermore, were prepared to spend time with him. One in fact, although I’m sure there would have been others I could have seen if it weren’t for Friday being, even in Devon, a part of most people’s working week.
I was grasping the nettle so soon because a lifetime of sport and inconvenient genetics mean that I’m having a new left-hip installed at the end of the month. If I left any travelling until after that God knows when I would be fit enough to face a long car journey, Devonian accents and memories of numerous boyhood tragedies.
The journey was uneventful although finding a place for some sort of breakfast on the A303 proved problematic. Almost without exception each eatery looked like they’d last seen a lick of paint early in the previous century and screamed customer service from a similar, less discerning, era. Without trying to score political points I suspect they were all run by Leavers who are renowned, stupidity apart, for living in the past. In desperation, we ended up queuing in a Macdonald’s drive-thru.
My new satnav also let me down on the approach to Dawlish and took me off the A38 one turning too early. For a non-local this could have meant a tense half an hour getting increasingly lost in the unbelievably narrow country lanes around Ashcombe at the Haldon Hills end of the Daw valley, but I rediscovered my sense of direction and astounded Theresa by ignoring signs to Dawlish and getting us to Terry Crump’s place in double quick time.
Terry and Janet Crump actually live in Dawlish Water, a mile up the Daw valley in breath-taking scenery and peace and quiet. They once owned and single-handedly built most of the Radfords Hotel but it has now been tastefully redeveloped as an exclusive set of properties enjoying privacy, great views and a lot of pink render and thatched roofs.
We arrived at about eleven and once we were out of the car I immediately heard Terry’s voice on the other side of a fence: the same as it was over forty years ago. When he came into view it was much the same where his appearance was concerned, except for the greying and shrinkage that none of us escapes as the years go by. We had a manly reunion after which Terry showed us around, Theresa listened patiently to him and me reminiscing about people and events of which she was completely ignorant.
We repaired to Terry and Janet’s cottage and stayed until about three. For most of the time Terry held forth on numerous topics of conversation but he is blessed with the rare gift of intelligence and wit so we were happy to do most of the listening. Janet turned up from shopping at midday and made us an agreeable lunch over which I learnt more about the fates of some of the characters from my book. For example, I was shocked and amused to hear that Terry Stone of being-crap-at-badminton fame had left Beryl and run off with a younger woman. Lucky old Beryl.
We left Terry and headed up the M5 for Bristol where two of my daughters now live and work. They are both contractors for banks which always makes visiting them fun because I don’t have to pay when we go out. Before we got there, however, we had to negotiate the horrendous holiday traffic on the only motorway in the South West. Nevertheless, we arrived at Harvey Nicks for dinner only five minutes late. Katie, Lucie and Owen, Lucie’s boyfriend, had thoughtfully started the ball rolling with a bottle of prosecco which was the perfect start to a great evening.
I slept like a log after such a demanding day, even Theresa’s snoring not affecting my slumber. We met Katie at nine for breakfast at Carluccio’s which sounds like the title of an art house film but is in fact a very good way to have breakfast in Bristol. Bristol, in fact, is a fantastic place - trendy, modern and cosmopolitan – all the things the A303 isn’t. I love it and if you’re planning a trip, stay at The Future Inn hotel because it’s right next to the shopping centre, the parking’s free, the rooms are fine and it’s five minutes from the end of the motorway.
It’s always worth mentioning, because I’m not going to let the opportunity go by, that every person who served me in Bristol at three restaurants and the hotel were all from Europe. The locals obviously aren’t in much demand in the service industries because foreigners are better educated and, well, nicer. Another reason may be the utterly ridiculous local accent. Devonian is okay – friendly and only fleetingly childish, but Bristolian - Jesus, anyone using it sounds like the weak link from a family of simpletons. This was brought home to me when Theresa and I took the opportunity to pop into Ikea before leaving Bristol. Now and again we like to imagine having hip and cool furniture at Pear Tree Cottage because it would inevitably make our marriage better and make me more attractive to women but our visit was hijacked by the comedy of the accents of our co-shoppers. No wonder my mother moved to Brixham!
Anyway, next and last stop on our way home was the village of Winterbourne Monkton near Swindon, home of my oldest friend, Roger Randall. I hadn’t seen Rog and his wife Clare for about ten years. We hadn’t fallen out – we’re just both crap at attending to relationships outside of our immediate families; and because we’re crap. In retrospect, I should have based a character on Rog in my novels because he really is an unusual and exceptional guy. He was my first and best badminton partner – playing with anyone else, even Rocky, was never quite the same and Rog always had a unique perspective on life and its living.
Since we left Dawlish Rog had spent his life pursuing a myriad of interests in his personal life, including tai chi and an open university degree in maths to go with his first degree. He is an accomplished musician and ended up as managing director of a major medical firm while still staying married and bringing up two children. One of his fields of expertise is hip replacements and he gave me such a clear explanation of the workings of these artificial joints that I’ve no doubt he would have made a great teacher as well. It really was good to at least start catching up and we’ve vowed to meet up more often than once a decade.
So, there you go. I wrote a book for my kids and I’ve ended up meeting two people I should have spent a lot more time with over the years. If you’re like me and there’s a Rog in your life, pick up the phone.