Pépé & Viggo: whinnies of love

(This was written as a reply to Lizzie Francke-Daniels’s posting of a photo of Viggo with his pet pony)

Viggo had that pony with him on the set of good. He got to know him on hidalgo.

pépé was so good. he was a human in pony form. i can see why viggo loved him so much. he was a fanatical san lorenzo supporter and an addict for that argentinian tea viggo drinks all the time, mate. that and very pure dark chocolate.
pepe came everywhere with viggo. even to the auschwitz set. when viggo put his ss uniform on, pépé knew something was wrong. he whinnied constantly in his rough, raspy voice. even when all the jews were howling during the takes (that was the time when the robin hood set sent over word: a bit less howling, please! those were the days…)… you could tell there was a pony in there. a pony at auschwitz!
viggo – in character – fought for it: what worse sign of human stupidity could one ask for? he had final cut too. but with time for 1 take left before sunset, he agreed – under horrendous pressure – to have the pony sedated. the take – all 4 minutes of it, in and out of the blockhouses – worked. i turned to my companion – a sky news newsreader who was only there because her husband arranged the mahler tune they used so brilliantly for the concentration camp band to play, and who was recently on tv round the clock giving updates for the late queen (she has short, blonde hair, looks a bit like charlize theron if you close your eyes 😉 ) – i turned to her, tears in my eyes, and embraced her…
and the awful thing was, the pony died of complications from the sedation. he had a pet passport which prohibited use of codeine, but in the confusion he had left it at the hotel, which was up in arms about having to put up a pony in the same bed as the star! only viggo’s smile calmed the whole furore down…

so with viggo in character, between the 7th and 8th takes, the sun racing towards the horizon, someone gave pépé codeine… and the rest was history.
viggo was barely present for the last day’s shooting. and then he went straight to the set of appaloosa in arizona, which happily for him was full of horses. and where he’d also arranged to meet his human partner, ariadna gil, with whom he’s been happy ever since. so maybe pépé’s demise was a good thing?
(but that ‘no animals were harmed in that shoot’ credit on good? hmmmm) 😉

(with apologies to simon gray)


the red shoeology

in 1950 dick wrathall received his official discharge from the black watch, in which he had been serving his 2 years’ national service, latterly as a lieutenant. he enrolled as a student at corpus christi college, cambridge, a short distance away from trinity hall, where his grandson alex is now a student.

he soon discovered ‘the red shoes’, a film that was still playing 2 years after it was released; a film so splendid in its technicolor and its vision of a war-free south of france that it became the *ultimate* film for dad. he saw it at the arts cinema in a falstaffian rising figure, at least 10, 15, no, 20 times. for those who – amazingly – *haven’t* seen it, i’ll give you a taste.

we’re at a party where the impresario boris lermontov, played by the sublime anton wahlbrook, is talking to lady neston:

– how would you define ballet, lady neston?

– ooh well, one might define it as the poetry of motion, perhaps, or…

– one might. but for me it is a great deal more. for me it is a religion. and one doesn’t really care to see one’s religion practised in an atmosphere such as this.

lermontov stalks off, prompting lady neston to sigh: attractive brute!

for the more romantic: taking a moonlit ride by the mediterranean in a horse-drawn carriage, julian kraster – music-student-turned-resident-composer for the ballet lermontov, played by marius goring – says to victoria page, played by moira shearer:

– one day when I’m old, I want some lovely young girl to say to me: where in your long life, mr kraster, were you most happy?

and I shall say: well, my dear, I never knew the exact place. but it was somewhere on the mediterranean. I was with victoria page.

what?! she will say. do you mean the famous dancer?

yes, my dear, I do. but then she was quite young. comparatively unspoiled. we were, I remember, very much in love.

fast forward to the end, when tragedy takes over. as she’s about to dance the ballet ‘the red shoes’, boris purrs in victoria’s ear: vicky, little vicky. there it is, all waiting for you. sorrow will pass, believe me. life is unimportant! and from now onwards you will *dance* like nobody ever before!

but it’s too late. she’s doomed. it’s monte carlo station. vicki has thrown herself from the terrace – and been hit by a train.

a frenchman says: pas d’espoir.

the crowd gasps.

– julian?

– yes, my darling.

– take off the red shoes.

what did ‘the red shoes’ mean to dick wrathall? *not*, as you might guess, the wonders of the ballet. elsewhere in life dick quoted winston churchill’s definition of ballet as ‘buggers dancing’.

to penetrate the mystery of ‘the red shoes’, maybe we have to look at boris lermontov himself. he is – to use another churchill phrase – ‘a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma’. not unlike a certain dick wrathall. perhaps he recognised himself?

a final anecdote: dick was on his way off set. he knew he liked movies, but he didn’t any more know what *kind* of movie.

– ‘violent saturday’. 1955! *in colour*!!

– oh, lovely!

– it’s got *lee marvin* in it!

cue vigorous nodding of the head.

(the discovery – since dick’s death – of a 2008 list showing his top 25 movies, compiled in 2008, has revealed that among them was marvin’s best film, point blank.)

at the end of 90 minutes of ‘violent saturday’, he looked at me with a half-smile and said:

– lee marvin.

and I looked at him and said: *lee Marvin*!

and I realised then that was the point of watching all those films together: we didn’t have to say any more than that.

Not quite a grown woman


I’ve got to go in to work today, a strike day, but really it’s just because I want to see Kitty. She’s so funny with such perfect timing and she just doesn’t realise it. Sheila was in the other day going on and on about drawing down pensions – which she calls ‘pinsions’ – and whatever newfangled thing they’re going to be replaced with in this ‘proactive’ world. Finally she stopped; there was silence for a moment.
And then Kitty said: Excuse me, but what is a pinsion?
She’s 31 and not quite a grown woman. Another time….

The Consequences Of Being Booed

Booing in Walthamstow. This is what happened to prime minister Winston Churchill on 4/7/45. 4 weeks later, he was out of power – despite the country being at war with Japan.

The Tories made a net loss of 189 seats in the General Election of 1945, while Labour made a net gain of 239.

Among Labour politicians elected for the first time in 1945 were:

Harold Wilson, Ormskirk

James Callaghan, Cardiff South

Hugh Gaitskell, Leeds South

Michael Foot, Plymouth Devonport

Barbara Castle, Blackburn.

Flash forward nearly 77 years. 4 weeks after 27/5/2022 – and the St Paul’s incident – is the day after the Tiverton and Wakefield by-elections.

The consequences of being booed. Just saying.

Why there’s a portrait of myself looking at me

The portrait of me on my wall. It stares down at me. I was 19, in my second year at university, and slept with the painter. Hence my modelling. She used to buy old frames secondhand and then cut the canvas to match. Hence the unusual shape.

The fireplace behind me in the portrait informs me that it was painted in the first-floor front room at 13 Divinity Road, Oxford. Her bedroom. (Mine was the ground-floor back.)

When she exhibited the painting in a gallery near Holland Park, my parents liked it and paid £50 for it! (A bit steep, I remember my mother saying, considering she’s only a student.) The portrait was duly hung in their dining room, where it remained for 23 years.

In 2005 my parents sold the house in London and, rather surprisingly, said: Did I want it back? (Apparently it was no longer required in their Suffolk house.)

I said OK, we’d have it back. The portrait was duly hung in the sitting room of my family home, where it proved a good talking point among the painters who my wife knew.

Fast forward to 2018. I’ve had a stroke, moved out of the family home and set up house 5 minutes away. A van arrives from my previous home, with all my worldly possessions. The portrait is among them. Not required there anymore either. A slightly bittersweet experience, if you’ve never had it.

I hang it on an existing hook, straight across from my bed. Which is why there’s a portrait of myself looking at me.

What jubilee?

So, yesterday was the 70th Jubilee, right? 70 years since HM Queen Elizabeth II ascended the throne.

Actually, no.

George VI died (Wikipedia tells me) on 6 February 1952. Which means that yesterday we celebrated the 70 years, 3 months and 27 days since Elizabeth came to the throne. What 2 June represents instead is the 69th anniversary of the coronation. So, what exactly are we celebrating? The 70-year, 3-month, 27-day anniversary? Or the 69th?

Is the jubilee now in line with Johnson’s revival of imperial measures? A system that everyone thinks they prefer despite the fact that no one really understands it. Is this what ‘the British people’ have become? With their Queen of England who doesn’t even go to the service at which 400 people are at this moment celebrating her quite meaningless 70-3-28th anniversary – because Liz would rather stay at home with her feet up, watching her only real interest, horse racing?

She’s havin’ a laugh, as Andy Millman would say.

The small mean man

Once in 1973 the family went to Wokingham to see Peter Gwynn, a colleague of Dad’s from Masius Wynne-Williams. I’d say he was also a friend of his – but I can’t be sure. It’s so hard with my father to tell who was a real friend as he’s seen no-one since he retired 34 years ago. A riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma…

Well, we went to see the Gwynns and with them was their late-teenage daughter Jane, who had just discovered Tubular Bells and played us all of the LP. I would have been 9 or 10 – 10 years younger than her. She took a shine to me and it was the beginnings of rumblings of… I didn’t know what. It was the 1st time I got on with a GIRL – not something you could do with my mother or sister. Jane called me – for some reason – ‘the small mean man’. I think we also had a Chinese takeaway for the 1st time, which I thought was exotic.

I don’t remember what she looked like – and I never saw her again. But the name has stayed…


In July I got the overnight ferry from Harwich International with my middle son and we reached Hook of Holland early in the morning, at 7am. Luckily, Lodewijk and Wanda came to meet us. In the 90s, Lodewijk told us, he had bought his brown 1974 Ford Consul – the car he still drove – in Hook from a man who wrote ‘Darkness’ on his flat wall, so it was always good to drive it back for a visit.

We went the scenic route to Amsterdam, via The Hague, as the room in the Hotel De Looier wasn’t available till 2pm. By 12, though, we’d reached Amsterdam and I was flagging. I suggested going to the hotel anyway, on the off chance that they’d have a room earlier. It was 35 degrees centigrade that day, which didn’t help.

No, said the woman at reception in the Hotel De Looier. The room was being cleaned till 2pm.

Really? I asked. (Housekeeping presumably doesn’t clean ALL rooms at 1.55…)

I played for time, saying could we check in anyway?, making a meal of limping back and forth from reception to where we had stashed our bags to look for our passports, checking which room we were booked for, saying we could have another, whatever was available… Etc, etc. I even said could I have a nap on the armchair in reception, if she didn’t mind? It was really quite hot outside…

Eventually, after much clattering on the computer keyboard, she relented. It would be quicker just to give us a room. There was one available, she discovered! I was ready to drop and so was exaggeratedly grateful. (Though I have to say, since having the stroke, most places are ok in the end, if you keep trying and keep your temper. Though NOT Herne Hill Lido when I wanted to use the disabled loo…)

There was one catch, however. It’s always when you finally let out a deep breath and think ‘phew’ that the obstacle emerges.

I had deliberately rung the hotel from England to check there was a lift. But now – wouldn’t you know – it was being repaired. I’d have to walk up 4 flights of spiral stairs.

For some reason my son had gone up to the room in advance so I had to get the Polish housekeeper to watch me while I slowly went up, backwards because the banister was on the right and I can only use my left hand. She carried my walking stick; she was called Eva and was very smiley.

I said when I first had the stroke, I used to say: 19 steps forward, 18 back. So long as I went ONE step forward, it was better than nothing.

I suppose a lot of people they get in Amsterdam hotels are fairly offhand, so she expressed approval of my positive attitude. She said that in Poland, they had a similar attitude. I can’t say what she said in Polish but she translated for me as well for good measure:

Shit happens…

What happened next

Myxomatosis is back. Yesterday at 5pm I saw a rabbit moving very slowly across the Green until a conscientious owner of greyhounds scooped it up and took it away. My grandfather used to kill ‘myxy’ rabbits to put them out of their misery – but he also used to shoot pheasants, hang them outside in the yard for what seemed like weeks and, when they were virtually rotten, decide they were ready for the oven. I used to hate eating them, with the distinctively yellow fat, cracking my teeth on shot…

The last myxomatosis outbreak was pre 2004, because our rabbit was still alive and we got her vaccinated. She died that year aged 7. We’d bought her in 1997 from a pet shop in Muswell Hill; she was called Isabel after, believe it or not, a character in Spirit Of The Beehive. A work colleague of mine asked me why we didn’t just have children. It was the 1st time that issue had raised its head.

When we bought the house in Essex we used to come down on the train with the rabbit in the basket (it wasn’t till we had kids that we bought a car). She was a great conversation starter. She loved being stroked. She used to chunter quietly and then suddenly roll on her back, with an expression of ecstasy.

One time when my wife was working at the Independent in 1999, they needed a pet for a photo piece on pet containers. I went up on the train with Isabel, sat in a studio in Clerkenwell while she did her stuff; she kept peeing on the pink coloured card and then lapping it up. Her Sarah Miles behaviour, I called it.

I was a bit fed up. I was only getting £50 and expenses, not being an experienced pet wrangler. When the shoot was over, I sat in the shelter in Northampton Square opposite City University with my rabbit in her basket. I wanted to go to the pub but I didn’t have the nerve. I remember thinking my life had come to this.

Then I thought if I was any good as a writer, I’d write a short story beginning with a man in a square with a rabbit in a basket… But I couldn’t think of what happened next.


The 1st time we went out as a couple after we had a child was to see Hannibal. It was February or the beginning of March. My wife’s parents were staying, Hannibal was on at Colchester Odeon, we’d enjoyed The Silence Of The Lambs (it had been one of our 1st dates in Paris) and also, crucially, we just didn’t think. We were too tired for that.

We drove there in the dark. I’d done my research, though, and Hannibal was written by David Mamet and starred Julianne Moore (as good as Jodie Foster) AND Gary Oldman, as well as Anthony Hopkins. But it was so appalling. Maybe a sequel’s nearly always bad?

We went home and went to bed. After a year’s worth of waiting for a night out – THIS.

Now we’re divorcing, you have to ask yourself: did we ever get it back?

Whatever ‘it’ was…