Sunday, 30 September 2007

Goody Two Brains

The interesting thing is that we have got two brains. There is the nice, civilised brain in the neat bed sitting-room behind the eyes. Then there is the other brain, the animal brain left over from our tree-swinging days: Cro Magnon. A survival, like our coccyx, which is all we have left of our tails.

If you want to meet prehistoric man, the brontosaurus basher, the chest thumper with the dinosaur dangling from his belt, just go straight up the spine, turn left at the ears and you cannot miss him in his dark little nest.

The moment I read about him, I recognised him at once. He is the one who has been getting me in trouble all these years. I am a stout, elderly gentleman of quiet pursuits and academic leanings. That is the influence of Better Behaved Brain. Nice little property he has up there in the head. “First Floor Front” the address runs “Forehead, Upper Nose on the Brow, ME.”

You will get him there most times, enjoying ‘Country Life’ like as not and listening to music. He does all my thinking and worrying for me and as a tenant is very desirable. He is not a scrap of trouble. About once a year he will come out, give me a nudge and say, “About time we were writing a book, isn’t it?” I say nervously, “It won’t hurt, will it?” “Of course not,” he reassures me, and off we go arm in arm to the word processor.

Never a cross word but we are often puzzled. Sometimes Better Behaved Brain and I have dozed off during our evening gin and wakened to find the glass empty and the bottle all but dry. Then we notice the sherry has gone too and the wine we were going to have with dinner. Some nights we have even had our suspicions about the washing up liquid. Now we know it is Animal Brain. The moment our eyes closed there he was swinging down the spine looking for trouble; emptying every bottle in sight and playing havoc with my good name.

It is all clear now but I used to wonder why people who invited me to their dinner parties were always a touch frosty when we met the next day. It was the old story. You get invited twice. Once to apologise.

It got so bad, that after the 100th birthday party of his mother, I had to write as follows to my host Lord Langford:

“.........It has come to my attention that your mother’s party was disrupted by a person posing as me. Sadly this is not the first time this has happened. I can only assume that some impudent fellow lies in wait for the post and steals my invitation..........”

Fortunately my old friend, the Ninth Baron, has a sense of humour and I was forgiven. Now I realise that no blame should have attached in the first place. It wasn’t me who goosed his cousin, a Governor of the BBC and the one who taught Mrs Thatcher to be a lady, emptied three decanters, sang the ‘Gallant Forty Twa’ and marched up and down The Boudoir playing imaginary bagpipes. It was Animal Brain. He had locked the forehead so that Better Behaved Brain and I couldn’t get out, and taken over the piloting of the body.

It was he who started arguments in pubs, sent rude letters to editors and producers. He is the racehorse urger. It was his nose that twitched with desire all those years ago. He who, when I won a pig in an army raffle, insisted on riding back to the camp where I was Provost Sergeant on the Orderly Corporal’s motor bike, with the pig on the pillion. I will bet it was Animal Brain who was forever pushing me off bar stools.

With Better Behaved Brain you know where you are. Stuff some chocolate caramels into his dressing gown pocket, poke up the sitting room fire and give him a Ngaio Marsh to read and you can leave him for hours. He likes a glass of wine, of course, and I keep a small cellar of choice wine just for him.

Animal brain is jealous. Not only is he programmed to self destruct; he wants to take Better Behaved Brain with him. As you know, our Better Behaved Brains have a quadrillion of cells. That is a million with nine noughts.

The trouble is every time you have a hangover you wipe out a million. Even worse, the ones that go first are the cells of memory, with the result that thanks to Animal Brain I am heavily overdrawn at the memory bank. I think I am down to five.

Animal brain can remember nothing and is wholly uneducated. When I was working, producers of television and radio programmes used to ring me up from time to time, saying, “We are looking for someone who can take a fresh look at……” whatever the subject was of the programme they planned.

Animal Brain always got to the phone first and he knew that what they were really saying was that the search was on for some incompetent who knew absolutely nothing about a subject. You were the only representative of the species who knew nothing about, say, sport, or farming, or, come to that, pretty well anything. Indeed Animal Brain has cornered the market in abysmal ignorance. It knows less about more subjects than any other brain operating in the secondary jungle of the media.

For a decade I made weekly appearances on a popular news quiz on BBC Radio Wales chaired by a man who knew everything, Vincent Kane. In ten years I doubt if I won more than a dozen times. Indeed I won so rarely that when I did Animal Brain demanded a recount.

The interesting fact is that although Animal Brain was asked to appear every week, my fellow contestants, politicians, business tycoons and academics who had developed their Better Behaved Brain and evicted AB’s Dark Shadow, only appeared once a month.


As I admit in my profile, I am stranger to punctuation. Readers of these essays may therefore wonder that the punctuation is immaculate. That is because I always marry above myself. My posh wife has ‘A’ levels in every conceivable subject and an Oxford degree and she very kindly looks over everything I write.
My friend Ken Ashton knows my attitude to punctuation, which incidentally was shared with Wordsworth. In his book on the Lakeland Poets, Thomas de Quincey tells how Wordsworth sent him to London to correct the proofs of a pamphlet because Wordsworth had little sympathy with punctuation.
Ashton has been kind enough to draw my attention to a friend of Percy Bysshe Shelley who lacked the comfort of a learned wife. He complained that whenever he began to write, he never could arrange his ideas in grammatical order. Which occasion suggested the idea of the following lines to the poet:

Here I sit with my paper, my pen and my ink,
First of this thing, and that thing, and t'other thing think;
Then my thoughts come so pell-mell all into my mind,
That the sense or the subject I never can find:
This word is wrong placed, — no regard to the sense,
The present and future, instead of past tense,
Then my grammar I want; O dear! what a bore,
I think I shall never attempt to write more,
With patience I then my thoughts must arraign,
Have them all in due order like mutes in a train,
Like them too must wait in due patience and thought,
Or else my fine works will all come to nought.
My wit too's so copious, it flows like a river,
But disperses its waters on black and white never;
Like smoke it appears independent and free,
But ah luckless smoke! it all passes like thee —
Then at length all my patience entirely lost,
My paper and pens in the fire are tossed;
But come, try again — you must never despair,
Our Murray's or Entick's are not all so rare,
Implore their assistance — they'll come to your aid,
Perform all your business without being paid,
They'll tell you the present tense, future and past,
Which should come first, and which should come last,
This Murray will do — then to Entick repair,
To find out the meaning of any word rare.
This they friendly will tell, and ne'er make you blush,
With a jeering look, taunt, or an O fie! tush!
Then straight all your thoughts in black and white put,
Not minding the if's the be's, and the but,
Then read it all over, see how it will run,
How answers the wit, the retort, and the pun,
Your writings may then with old Socrates vie,
May on the same shelf with Demosthenes lie,
May as Junius be sharp, or as Plato be sage,
The pattern or satire to all of the age;
But stop — a mad author I mean not to turn,
Nor with thirst of applause does my heated brain burn,
Sufficient that sense, wit, and grammar combined,
My letters may make some slight food for the mind;
That my thoughts to my friends I may freely impart,
In all the warm language that flows from the heart,
Hark! futurity calls! it loudly complains,
It bids me step forward and just hold the reins,
My excuse shall be humble, and faithful, and true,
Such as I fear can be made but by few —
Of writers this age has abundance and plenty,
Three score and a thousand, two millions and twenty,
Three score of them wits who all sharply vie,
To try what odd creature they best can belie,
A thousand are prudes who for Charity write,
And fill up their sheets with spleen, envy, and spite[,]
One million are bards, who to Heaven aspire,
And stuff their works full of bombast, rant, and fire,
T'other million are wags who in Grubstreet attend,
And just like a cobbler the old writings mend,
The twenty are those who for pulpits indite,
And pore over sermons all Saturday night.
And now my good friends — who come after I mean,
As I ne'er wore a cassock, or dined with a dean,
Or like cobblers at mending I never did try,
Nor with poets in lyrics attempted to vie;
As for prudes these good souls I both hate and detest,
So here I believe the matter must rest. —
I've heard your complaint — my answer I've made,
And since to your calls all the tribute I've paid,
Adieu my good friend; pray never despair,
But grammar and sense and everything dare,
Attempt but to write dashing, easy, and free,
Then take out your grammar and pay him your fee,
Be not a coward, shrink not to a tense,
But read it all over and make it out sense.
What a tiresome girl! — pray soon make an end,
Else my limited patience you'll quickly expend.
Well adieu, I no longer your patience will try —
So swift to the post now the letter shall fly.


Jim Lovelock, my good friend and one of the oldest, died this week at his home in Spain. Death must have had quite a struggle because Jim was the stuff that old boots are made from.

Editor of a weekly newspaper in his early twenties, he was crippled with polio as a child, but nevertheless became a mountaineer, a pot-holer and a member of the expedition which climbed Nuptse, Everest’s younger sister. Working for the Daily Mail, he once climbed the south face of the building and climbed through the window into the editor’s office.

He was also my boss for a day and a half when he was proprietor of Stockport News Service.

Jim was a remarkable man who collected oddities. The rest of the staff of Stockport News Service was an odd little chap called Mickey. We had to find him to be introduced, and that was never easy. A year after his arrival, no one knew Mickey’s surname and I don’t think anyone ever found out where he lived.

He was invariably respectful and called Jimmy “Master”. He had a single purpose in life: to discover how millionaires made their first thousand pounds. Their memoirs, said Mickey who had read them all, always included the phrase, “with my first thousand pounds I bought…….” but never explained where the thousand pounds had come from.

He thought they had nicked it; but, scorning that as being too easy, he tried dealing. He only really mastered the art of acquiring: disposal escaped him. To Jimmy’s puzzled chagrin, he used the Agency’s office as his warehouse. There were racks of clothes of improbable sizes; a job lot of stringless violins, picked up for a song, inevitably tuneless; twenty gross of heavily tinselled cards wishing “A Happy Xmas for 1948” which he bought in 1951; and other less saleable items. You could never find a pen there, or even a typewriter; but anyone in need of a stringless violin was easily accommodated.

Next he tried gambling, a curious reversal. This time, disposing was child’s play: acquiring, he never quite mastered.

He had one suit he wore to the office, except on the days when he wore a mackintosh in the hope that “Master” would not notice he was wearing only a shirt, tie and underpants beneath, having pawned the suit. The gartered socks were a give-away.

By the time I arrived, Jimmy had taken to paying him by the day. The second day there I got an out of town job; I was, after all, the only member of staff who could be relied on to turn up in a suit. Wilmslow Magistrates Court, which in those days could be reached from Stockport by train, was hardly outer space but Mickey anxiously took me for a couple of pints to stiffen the sinews. One pint led to another and by the time I got on the train I was exhausted, fell into a deep sleep and woke up in Crewe. I had seen enough Hollywood newspaper films to know what to do. I rang Stockport on a transfer charge call and asked Jimmy to wire me my fare back to Stockport.
I was touched that he went further: he drove all the way to Crewe to collect me. I see now that the reason was that it gave him a greater opportunity for an in-depth character assessment, but at the time I thought it a charming gesture.

We were nearing Stockport when he ended his assessment. “Skiddy,” he said, “we have two alternatives. Either I employ you or we stay friends.” Again I was very touched; it was my friendship he valued.

He generously paid me for a day and a half, but despite the joint urgings of Mickey and myself, refused to add the one and a half hours’ holiday money to which we felt I was entitled. After nearly sixty years the debt remains unpaid, though I have over the years mentioned it many times, even sent bills to his retirement home in Spain. He always copped me a deaf ‘un.

In the fullness of time he came to work for me, doing shifts when I ran the night desk on the Sunday Pictorial. I tried to have my holiday money docked from his shift money, but the linage department was obdurate. No amende honorable, not even when he made a fortune doing night shifts for six nationals, on one occasion sleeping in his car outside the vicarage in Cheshire in case his prey, the naughty Vicar of Woodford, sneaked back from his love-nest in the South of France

In fairness, he did bring me a Kukri back from Nepal when he climbed Nuptse and I treasure it to this day.

I was especially touched because he would have had every right to be cross. George Harrap, the picture editor, and I had sent him a telegram as soon as the news broke of his successful attempt. “Is there froth on the top?” it read, rather cleverly, we thought.
We didn’t know that it would take the Sherpa who delivered it three days to climb the mountain.

Mickey? No idea. The last time we met we were having lunch with Lord (Tony) Moynihan when his wife’s breast fell out and somehow, in the excitement of that, I never got round to finding out whether Mickey made his first thousand, but I was pleased to see he was not wearing his Mac.

But I will be waiting for the publication of Jimmy’s will………………

1 comment:

Jamx said...

I know you wrote this story back in 2007 but I've just come across it this evening. Thank you for sharing your memories of my grandfather, it always puts a smile on my face to read some of his ludicrous adventures. I've only just found about about the Lovelock Fornicatrium for example.

Many regards.
Jamie Lovelock.