Saturday, 6 October 2007

Death, whatever happened to thy sting?

Since so many of the population watch the X Factor, it is probably not good news but the fact remains we are conquering Death.

Whatever else war was, it was an absurd waste of the flower of manhood and a greater condemnation of our collective intelligence even than watching the X Factor.
It is inconceivable that in the 21st century we are still resolving arguments, and stealing each others’ tribal lands and riches, by sending our young men to kill perfect strangers with whom they have more in common than in dispute. We should have got over that when we left the cave and abandoned the club. It defies common sense. If a farmer knew a field was full of poisonous weeds, he would be unlikely to test it by sending in his finest herd of young pedigree cattle.

Curiously, Russia, which has spent most of its existence either killing itself by the million or other people it has never met, takes the lead in showing us that killing people is unnecessary. All you have to do is switch off the light, as this week it threatens to do with Georgia. At a stroke, the country is helpless.

Another country which is demonstrating that it is quite unnecessary to go to all the trouble and expense of killing people is China. In fairness, this is a country which has so many people of its own to kill by the million that it has no need to look for fights with its neighbours as a means of population control. It now shows how absurdly easy it is to defeat an opponent by hacking into the IT systems by which we are governed - and we pass quietly into governance by Chinese restaurants, which I have been convinced for years ,judging by the number of waiters they employ have been outposts of the Chinese SAS. Though recalling the excellence of service and the delicious quality of the food in the ones I use, a Chinese take over might be the logical extension of a take away and not entirely a bad thing. We may not understand what our new rulers are talking about - but what else is new?

It is a sobering thought that in any contest between Western civilisation and a computer nerd, Western civilisation would be about ten to one against. Not only is warfare on its last legs: no sooner does nature invent a new disease to get rid of the human race which is wrecking its planet than our scientists invent a cure. Thus we are able to sink deeper in the primeval mud of old age, our minds blanked by Alzheimer’s disease, our bodies wracked with Parkinson’s or eaten by cancers.

Keep fit, keep well, the Government advises us, so you can spend long years sitting in rows in Non Care Homes, wetting yourselves and watching the X Factor.

I have never kept fit, nor consciously tried to be well. When a doctor warned me I was so fat that movement was a risk, I reduced movement to a minimum and survived. I even failed the entrance exam for a Slimmers’ Clinic.

Some years ago, an Anglesey doctor admitted, as he wrote approvingly “growing old disgracefully” on my medical records: “If we kept dogs alive in the state we do people, we would be summonsed by the RSPCA.”

I am like that character of Somerset Maugham’s in “The Razor’s Edge” who admitted he would not complain if he died tomorrow. I have seen the finest pictures in the world, listened to its greatest music, read its books, seen its plays. I have known in the biblical sense some beautiful women. I have enjoyed happiness in marriage, bred good children, been a professional success, eaten in the finest restaurants in Europe. I write this with my dog at my feet, surrounded by my books.

As an aspirant Buddhist, I do not believe in death, anyway. I am one with Dylan Thomas who prophesied “Death Shall Have No Dominion”. John Donne put it even more strongly “ And death shall be no more, Death thou shalt die.”
Though, mind you, for many years he kept his coffin by his desk. A great man for the each way bet was Dr Donne. And I am quite ready for my next body, too. Not for Enlightenment.
Enlightenment sounds too much like Alzheimer’s with attitude, celebrated in a Celestial Care Home.

I wouldn’t mind coming back as a grape.


Readers may have been puzzled at the press cutting for my BBC Wales programme, “Radio Brynsiencyn”, which appeared by some quirk of word processery unknown to me on this page some weeks ago. This is its story
The best editor I had in my years of Taff-railing for BBC Wales was called Bob Atkins. He was an Englishman too, so he was scuppered from the first day on the job.
He called me to Cardiff and said he enjoyed a programme I was doing at the time.
It was called Skidmore’s Island, and how it worked was that a producer called Jack King knocked at my door with his tape recorder playing and for the next half hour I talked: about books and about neighbours. If anyone knocked at the door, I interviewed them and I played music on my radiogram. No scripts; no conception of what was going to happen.

Unfortunately, Bob, who liked a drink, took me to the BBC Club in Cardiff and as he carried me out and poured me into a taxi he said, ‘I won’t ask you to explain how the programme works now…’ (Which was just as well; it took me ten minutes to tell the driver where I wanted to go). ‘…Do me a memo.’
I didn’t remember that until I was back home in Brynsiencyn, on Anglesey, when still, in Milton’s words, flown with wine and impertinence, I typed out the following:
‘Radio Brynsiencyn: - This is your smallest outpost. In the customary fashion of BBC bosses, I have slept with the entire staff. But since we have been married for ten years it may not count. Our Uher tape recorder is so old it has a pebble glass window and a thatched lid. Our music department is a wind-up gramophone and our record collection includes Teddy Bears’ Picnic and In A Monastery Garden. In fact that is the extent of our collection.’
Then I sealed and posted it and it wasn’t until I sobered up that I realised I had probably dashed the prospect of a glittering career with an audience of sheep and men who wore clothes that looked as though they had been made from the covers of old prayer books.

What happened was that I got a letter from Bob: ‘Forget Skidmore’s Island. I want a series of twenty Radio Brynsiencyn.’

The trouble was I had forgotten by this time what I had put in the letter.
But… I had a title for my programme, twenty slots at peak listening time, and a Uher tape recorder I bought for sixteen quid on the same stall at Llangefni market where I had found the wind-up gramophone that was my music department. I had an outside broadcast unit in the shape of a sit-up-and-beg bike with an errand boy’s basket on the handlebars and a wife with a posh voice. And not an idea of what to do with any of them.

It struck me that was par for the course in my ‘parent’ BBC so I decided to do what they did in similar circumstances: surround myself with a staff.

Anglesey being an island, I needed a Foreign Editor to handle matters in the dark lands on the other bank of the Menai Strait. Fortunately, a chap I had first known on a Bangor weekly paper had just retired. His name was Angus McDairmid and he had some experience of the role. After brilliant coverage of the wrecking of a sailing ship in the Menai Strait, he was poached by the BBC and went on to become a distinguished foreign correspondent, covering Washington at the time of Watergate and various wars for the Corporation.
Eminently suitable to look after Bangor.
Angus had interviewed world leaders but he remained obsessed with his home town, where he was still ‘Gus’ McDermott (his name before being swamped by the Celtic Renaissance of the Sixties). He used the job to indulge a secret vice. Wherever he had been in the world, however great the crisis, he always found time to visit any town called Bangor. Every week on Radio Brynsiencyn, until his sad death, he told an eager world about them.

Then there was the matter of a Cleaning Staff, vital because broadcasters are a messy lot. Fortunately, one was at hand: the love of my life, Rose Roberts, who already cleaned for us and ruled us with a rod of iron. I christened her Attila the Hoover and I was only partly joking. Dirt was terrified of her and dust disappeared at her touch.

Rose had a voice with the carrying power of a giant crane. She had appeared in the programme for only a few weeks when she took a day trip to London. She was queuing for the Palladium and passing pleasantries with her companions that could have been heard in Newcastle upon Tyne. ‘Blimey,’ came a voice from far down the queue, ‘it’s Attila the Hoover!’

No Welsh broadcasting station is complete without a choir. At a lifeboat charity evening I heard a quartet called the Oscars, and immediately recruited them. A pal of mine, Derek Jones, was a bit worried about his teenage son whose singing voice had just broken. He was keen on broadcasting so Derek asked if we would teach him the art of interviewing. I was a bit reluctant. Whenever I heard the lad sing, the hair on the back of the head lifted and I had a sense that he had been touched by God. His name was Aled Jones. Done quite well since, but at that time his preoccupation was a sandwich toaster he had bought with his first earnings and he was forever thrusting toasted sandwiches at you.

But I thought, ‘Give the lad a chance’, and employed him at a fiver a week. Aled did nothing by halves. He played tennis to county standard; a fine footballer, he was offered trials with professionals; and he was so keen to get his GCSEs that in the interval of a concert before most of America in the Hollywood Bowl, he sat in his dressing room, swotting. Aled went out with my wife on a couple of interviews and picked the art up so quickly he was soon doing them on his own. His dad told me he nearly drove his parents mad practising interviewing on them.

A remarkable boy. Never a trace of nerves. Singing for the Royal Family, he forgot the lyric and made up one as he sang along. He went to record Memories for Andrew Lloyd Webber. ‘Like to do a run-through?’ said Lloyd Webber. ‘Can we go for a take?’ asked Aled.

They did, and the first take was all that was needed. ‘Good God,’ said Lloyd Webber, ‘it took Barbra Streisand a week to do that.’

His Dad told me later: ‘I didn’t like to explain he was in a hurry to watch Match of the Day.’

Aled was blessed with three gifts: the voice of an angel and his parents, Derek and Nest, who kept his feet firmly nailed to the ground.

When he was awarded his first Gold Disc, the BBC planned a huge reception in Cardiff for the award ceremony. ‘Out of the question,’ said Derek, ‘he would have to miss school.’ The BBC had to hire a helicopter to get him to the ceremony; it landed on the playing field of his school in Menai Bridge.

The programme was beginning to take shape: a ‘pirate’ radio station that parodied the commercial radio of the day. We had a signature tune; a group of producers and broadcasters sang the jingles to announce the items; Celia (Celia Lucas, ex Daily Mail, Mrs Skidmore) did interviews and I headed the whole thing with a rant.
Wearing a dinner jacket, of course.

The BBC printed T shirts, ties and mugs with the station logo which started to appear in the oddest places all over the world. We had the highest listening figures on BBC Wales; a ‘club’ of listeners was formed in Boston in the USA and the daughter of a friend started a Radio Bryn fan club at Oxford University.

Islands can be dull places in winter. Anxious to get away, a neighbour toured the Loire. By the river one day, he switched on his radio as he unwrapped a picnic… and heard the signature tune of Radio Bryn doing an outside broadcast – outside his house.

Celia recorded the programme in our kitchen, rough cut it and sent it to Dewi Smith, head of light entertainment in Wales, for final polishing and transmission.

Then a funny thing happened.

Everyone was convinced it was a real station and I started to get applications for jobs. W.I.s, youth clubs and at least one school asked if they could tour the studios. Then BBC Controller Ulster heard it while driving across Anglesey and rang my editor to ask, ‘Do you have a studio in the cottage or does it come to you via landline?’ We were even a page lead in the Daily Mail.

The series ended seventeen years ago. It is still talked about in Wales. Everything in what I laughingly call my career was an accident. This was the happiest of them all.
I won a Golden Microphone after thirty years as a ‘celebrity’ presenter on Radio Wales and a fortnight later they dropped me because I was English. I took the BBC to a Race Relations Tribunal and there was quite a lot of fuss about it.
I had been rewarded with many by-lines on the Daily Mirror over the years: now I was the subject of a front page lead. The Head of BBC Wales told the paper I was a Victor Meldrew figure and the editor said I was too old. He didn’t say the same about Jimmy Young, Humphrey Lyttelton or Alastair Cooke, to name but a few. So perhaps the ruling just covred the foot soldiers. But the BBC gave me a few grand to keep quiet, and I did. Within a month, both the Head and the Editor had been sacked.

But as I sit by my pond, keeping herons off my koi, I do ponder a bit. My Manchester accent has softened on account of marrying above myself and marinating the throat muscles in the benevolent sweat of the juniper. But I hope and pray I have not lost it.
At the time I had 26 million listeners worldwide to my rants. Plainly my bosses at BBC Wales were not among them. Or they might have noticed that I seldom said Yachi da (I didn’t even know how to spell it).

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………………