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.

On Zaheer Abbas and Jackdaws

Like many a nerdy boy who grew up in the 1970s, I was a fan of Jackdaws. They were like the internet before the internet existed – collections of historical documents, maps, pictures and trivia about a specific historical event, all in a stylishly designed folder. In truth, I was a collector rather than a reader; the contents of all my Jackdaws, explored before I gave them to the charity shop, were still in order (compared to H, whose collection had disappeared long ago because the contents had been scattered to the winds).

Another reason my Jackdaw collection lasted so well was the fact that it had remained for 28 years at my family home, until it was sold in 2005. Being by that time a father of two, I was presented by my parents with the Jackdaw collection, among many other children’s books (and, oddly I thought, my sister’s doll’s house). But even though my eldest son would in due course be turned into a University Challenge semi finalist via his interest in obscure geography, national flags and historical footnotes, the internet had in the mean time made the Jackdaw totally redundant. Wikipedia and YouTube had made you the editor (rather than Len Deighton, say, who edited Jackdaw no 65: Battle Of Britain).

In amongst The Battle Of Waterloo, Wolfe At Quebec and Votes For Women, one Jackdaw was set slightly apart by its not entirely historical focus: no 101, Cricket. Gary Sobers on the cover, sweeping. I looked through the Jackdaw just to see if anything would take me back to the years between 1972 and 1976 – when I discovered that my father was not to be trusted, and so the attempt to bond with him that cricket represented was not really worth the trouble.

Item 16 pulled me up short. It was about village cricket, as symbolised but one team: Mistley, chosen obviously because it’s known as the MCC (Marylebone Cricket Club/Mistley Cricket Club, the sort of ‘joke’ you could imagine Brian Johnston making). The church whose spire can be seen in the photograph of a cricket match included in the Jackdaw is the same spire as I can see now – from the reverse angle – through the ground floor window of my house at no 4 the Green.

I couldn’t believe that all this time, this coincidence had been lying hidden. I moved to Mistley in 1999, and the Jackdaw had been unread for all this time (and another 20 years before that, at least).

I flipped over the A4 page, printed on card to resemble a page from a photo album, and there was a picture of the village team on August 15, 1969, giving a toast to an old lady. And third from the left was A, the man who’s lived since 1963 next door at no 3! He must have been about 30 then; he still had hair.

I immediately strapped on my splint and went to A’s back door. I showed him the Jackdaw. In typical village-cricketer fashion, he was matter-of-fact about the discovery that his photograph was in a publication from 1971 that had just been found in the house of his next door neighbour.

On impulse, I presented him with my copy.

He nodded: Thank you very much, I’m sure. He hadn’t seen it before and he’d look through it later, after tea.

Or something.

I was obviously far more excited about it than he was, and soon withdrew.

As I write this at 2.08am on the last day of May, I hear A calling for help. I sleep on the ground floor at no 4, with my bed head up against the wall with no 3, where A is in bed downstairs as well (knee trouble, and more). His wife, an excellent woman who was a nurse at Colchester and Ipswich, popped round to chat yesterday, the postbox at the end of the road providing the excuse for her temporary escape.

He’ll be shouting for me soon, she said.

It’s alright, I replied. We’ll hear him through the wall.

She laughed. All that time at Colchester and Ipswich hospitals have given her (and me) the same sense of humour.

All this cricket stuff, which happened 4 years ago, came back to me this week as a result of a chance remark I made to H. He lives in a maisonette in Ladbroke Grove with his dementia-afflicted mother. (H is 59, though he looks to be in his late 30s; which means she is at least into her 80s.)

We occasionally go into WhatsApp reveries. This time, we were discussing his evening at a garden party in ‘his’ back garden, one of those splendid Notting Hill inventions that is only accessible to neighbours (as immortalised in Notting Hill the movie).

(You need to know that the church visible from H’s home – St John’s, Notting Hill – was also filmed by Michelangelo Antonioni in 1974 when Jack Nicholson walks past in the film The Passenger.)

I wrote: Should have remembered you could see it from Locke’s house [a reference to the Nicholson character]

H: Yeah I’m in that over the shoulder shot, sitting in my front room watching England v Pakistan 1974

I: Zaheer Abbas scoring a double century

H: Didn’t want to say – but “drinks party” + “Zaheer Abbas”

And with that came a photo of that night: H, his arm round Zaheer Abbas, at the party!

I couldn’t believe it.

I: Is that really him?

H: It is. Two hours ago

Zaheer – the ‘Asian Bradman’ who had been out of my life and thoughts since 1974 – was also back!

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.