Friday, 30 December 2011


I have just celebrated my 82nd Christmas. Well perhaps celebrated is putting it a mite strongly. Apart from a delicious lunch with our favourite neighbours on Boxing Day and another in a country pub on Christmas Eve we spent it sipping champagne, watching some splendid TV – little of it current productions which plumbed new depths of banality. Even banality can have depth in TV land.

In place of a paper hat I wore the livery of the S.A.S. (The Scrooge Appreciation Society which I founded many years ago), a woolly hat emblazoned ”Bah Humbug”, carpet slippers and capacious track suit bottoms.

It would not be true to say that I dislike Christmas. Dislike? No. Loathe? Yes.

Christmas is a children’s festival which over the past half century grown-ups have gradually corrupted. Only a child has the perception to accept the duality of Santa Claus and loving fathers or the whole fairy fiction of Christ’s birthday. No shepherds would be watching their flocks in the depth of winter: there is no nutritious new grass to chew; sheep spent the winter corralled in sheep folds. It is impossible to collect taxes in December because there is nothing left to tax. Taxes are collected in September when the granaries are full and the fruit and vegetables have been gathered in and sold. Finally there was no comet showing the way to the manger. Chinese astronomical charts go back through recorded time and the only major comet activity was in September 4 AD when historians believe Christ was born. House of David? Very likely. In the highlands clan members were traditionally related to their chief, literally the Father of His Clan.

Virgin Birth? That was tried as a defendant’s plea in a High Court divorce court in London in the ‘20s. It was thrown out by the judge. One of my princely Welsh ancestors raped a nun and St David was the result. The nun was later canonised as St Non and in St David’s in Pembrokeshire there is the ruin of a chapel at the place where the rape took place. Latin authors claimed a similar fate befell Mary. The Talmud claims Jesus's actual father was a Roman soldier called 'Panthera' .The union occurred during a punitive expedition led by the general Varus.

The Jewish historian Josephus mentions three characters who people thought were messiahs and who were crucified by the Romans: Yehuda of Galilee (6 CE), Theudas (44 CE), and Benjamin the Egyptian (60 CE). It is possible that the Jesus story is partly based on their lives.

People are still rewriting religious truths. A Welsh chum of mine, the Reverend Geraint ap Iorwerth, was never happy with a Holy Trinity of “two he’s and an it“.

Forty years ago he founded the Order of Sancta Sophia which sees God as the Divine Feminine. Believers from all over the world visit first his website and then make pilgrimages to the Church of Wales’ St Peter ad Vincula at Pennal, near Aberdovey, where he is rector. ap Iorwerth told me: “People are fed up with traditional religious structures. The church is dying because most people live outside the old religious commitments. Less than eight per cent of people in Wales go to church or chapel on Sundays so there has got to be something wrong.

“I still function as a traditional Anglican priest for those who see me in that role, but I promote the ancient Celtic church as well. It was gentler and more tolerant. They are more in touch with the feminine and more akin to the Eastern Church. Praise and thanksgiving rather than doom, gloom and hell fire.

“The Wisdom of God, always feminine, can bring people together. She is almost like a Divine Consort. Pennal is where Christ and Sophia dance together.”

They dance in greatly altered surroundings. Next to the altar is a sanctuary dedicated to all religions with an icon of the Divine Wisdom from the Byzantine church. A barn has been converted into an Ashram. There are sacred trees in the churchyard and a slate picnic table which doubles as an altar. Nearby is a barbecue and a bonfire site where, on all major feast days, fires are lit as they would have been in pre-Christian times to celebrate Midsummer (Feast of St John the Baptist) and the Celtic New Year (All Hallows’ Eve).

The Rector says: “I don’t think there is one true faith. The Cosmic Christ is beyond all religions. Who are we to limit his Person? He came to teach humility and we are arrogant to say there is no True Love in other religions.

“How can we claim an exclusive line to God when every religion gives you a different perspective of Truth? God would have been daft to leave it all to Christianity.

“I am on the fringe of orthodox religion and content to stay there following the Celtic tradition of going out to help where help is needed.”

Friday, 23 December 2011


I read where this reporter had a friend who bought a turkey and it was run over twice. That beats my turkey which was only run over the once. But I never miss a chance to repeat the story at this time of the year:

I keep going back in my mind to the Christmas when I was out of work and this pal of mine said: "Don’t suppose you will be having much of a Christmas?"

I said: "If I wanted a mince pie I would have to buy it on H.P. We will be out on Xmas Day because it is warmer out than it is in the house. I have promised the kids we will go to Radio Rentals to watch the Queen's Speech through the window. Then we are going to a park to mug robins for their breadcrumbs."

"Not having a bird on The Day then?"

"Not unless I can grab one of the robins as we steal its breadcrumbs."

He said: "Why don't you nip down to the market just before it closes on Xmas Eve? They practically give birds away. Then," he said, "come to the Press Party at the Continental Cinema."

So I did. I picked up a chicken with my last fifty pence and went to the party. Where I set up a record for drinking free scotch and eating vol-au-vents that remained unbroken for many years.

Then this guest said: "Let's play rugby."

Another guest said: "We haven't got a ball."

A third guest said: "Yes, we have," and grabbed the parcel of chicken from where it had been roosting under my arm.

Everyone but me applauded the skill with which the next guest, a rather showy chap, executed a back pass with my parcel between his legs.

I was less pleased than anyone when another guest followed through with a drop kick.

It was powerful, I will say that. It sent the parcel soaring across the foyer, out into the street, over the heads of the passers-by, to drop, perfectly positioned, under the tyre of a passing bus.

They were all very apologetic. The manager of the cinema particularly. He said he hoped the parcel hadn't contained anything important. I said, no, it was just a chicken I got for tea on Boxing Night.

For the rest of the party I was a bit thoughtful, though I did manage to clock up a further freeloader's record of eighteen scotch and a round dozen vol-au-vents.

At the death the manager came up and gave me a parcel. "I hope you will accept this replacement with our apologies," he said.

It was a twelve pound turkey. Which would have been nice... but we didn't have an oven at the time, just a gas grill. So we had to cook it a leg at a time.It was a twelve pound turkey. Which would have been nice... but we didn't have an oven at the time, just a gas grill. So we had to cook it a leg at a time.


From one of my favourite writers, the incomparable Geoff Mather, comes this Xmas cheer...

Concert review from the Bangkok Post 27/08/98:

The recital last evening in the chamber music room of the Erewan Hotel by US pianist Myron Kropp can only be described by this reviewer as one of the most interesting experiences he has witnessed in a long time.

With sparse, sandy hair, a sallow complexion, and a deceptively frail looking frame, the man who has re-popularised Johann Sebastian Bach approached the Baldwin Concert Grand, bowed to the audience, and placed himself upon the stool. As 1 have mentioned before, the Baldwin Concert Grand, while basically a fine instrument needs constant attention, particularly in a climate such as Bangkok. In this humidity, the felts which separate the white keys from the black tend to swell, causing an occasional key to stick, which apparently was the case last night with the D in the second octave.

During the "Raging Storm" section of the D Minor Toccata and Fugue, Mr

Kropp must be complimented for putting up with the awkward D. However, some who attended the performance later questioned whether the awkward key justified some of the language which was heard coming from the stage during the softer passages of the fugue. During one passage, Mr Kropp turned around completely so that, whereas before his remarks had been aimed largely at the piano and were therefore somewhat muted, to his surprise and that of those in the chamber music room, he found himself addressing himself directly to the audience. But such things do happen, and the person who began to laugh deserves to be severely reprimanded for this undignified behaviour.

Unfortunately, laughter is contagious, and by the time it had subsided and the audience had regained its composure Mr Kropp appeared to be somewhat shaken. Nevertheless he swivelled himself back into position facing the piano and, leaving the fugue unfinished, commenced on the Fantasia and Fugue in G Minor. Why the concert grand piano's G key in the third octave chose that particular time to begin sticking I hesitate to guess. However, it is certainly safe to say that Mr Kropp did nothing to help matters when he began using his feet to kick the lower portion of the piano instead of operating the pedals as is generally done.

Possibly it was this jarring that caused the right front leg of the piano to buckle slightly inward, leaving the entire instrument listing at a 35-degree angle from that which is normal. A gasp went up from the audience, followed by a sigh of relief as Mr Kropp slowly rose from the stool and left the stage. A few men in the back of the room began clapping, and when Mr Kropp reappeared a few moments later it seemed he was responding to the ovation. Apparently, however, he had left to get the red-handled fire axe which was hung back stage, and began chopping at the legs of the piano.

When the weakened legs finally collapsed altogether and Mr Kropp continued to chop, it became obvious to all that he had no intention of going on with the concert. The ushers came rushing in and, with the help of the hotel manager, two Indian watchmen, and a passing police corporal, finally succeeded in disarming Mr Kropp and dragging him off the stage.


The passing of Christopher Hitchens did little for my Xmas spirit.

From the New York Times I pass on some of his invariably wise words:

On what gives life meaning:
“A life that partakes even a little of friendship, love, irony, humor, parenthood, literature, and music, and the chance to take part in battles for the liberation of others cannot be called ‘meaningless’ except if the person living it is also an existentialist and elects to call it so.” (“Hitch-22″)

On friendship:
“One melancholy lesson of advancing years is the realization that you can’t make old friends.” (Harper’s magazine, 1999)

On public speaking:
“If you can give a decent speech in public or cut any kind of figure on the podium, then you need never dine or sleep alone.” (“Hitch-22″)

On alcohol:
“On the whole, observe the same rule about gin martinis – and all gin drinks – that you would in judging female breasts: one is far too few, and three is one too many. Do try to eat the olives: they can be nutritious.” (Vanity Fair, 2003)

My friend Mike Flynn whom many will remember from Radio Wales writes;

Hi Ian

I hope you are feeling well and fully primed for the festivities.

My wife was in Tesco's yesterday and was trying to check out with three packs of aspirin and a pack of Strepsils.

It appears they are not allowed to sell you that combination. Three packs of aspirin are the limit but not with Strepsils. Or you can have three packs of Strepsils but no aspirin.

However if you want to drink yourself to death there no limit.

Saturday, 17 December 2011


In a week when the Virgin Birth is celebrated it was chastening to hear a scientist extolling the sea urchin to which virgin births are commonplace. Many things can replace sperm in the love life of this aquatic Marilyn Munroe, even soap powder, biologists insist.

I am never brimming over with the illusory Spirit of Christmas but the realisation, as a retired stud, that I could have been replaced in a welcoming bed by a packet of Persil did little for my ego.

Then there was my continued transformation into 20th Century Fox as doctors intensified the Great Cancer Hunt. This week I was required to swallow a tiny camera which then ran amok in my small bowel, frantically taking 10,000 happy snaps. So far the combined safaris have not found their prey but a preview of the latest epic held a surprise. My small bowel is a dead ringer, even down to the fringes, of the God Particle, or the Higgs Boson as we hunters prefer to call it. One is quietly proud that not only am I A Camera: I am a fully portable Hadron Collider. Quite an achievement when you think the one in Switzerland is 18 miles long whilst my team of doctors only has one mile of intestines to go at. The next time someone is rude about my 58-inch waist I shall point out with becoming hauteur that the space is needed for the Big Bang which happened there. I am the parent of the Universe.

Long serving husbands will know that in order to get a wife to pursue a given action one has only to suggest she does the opposite. So when the Head Ferret borrowed a Sat Nav I looked forward to an interesting clash of wills. I was not disappointed. When she was switched on, the lady in the Sat Nav suggested we turn left at the end of our road: my wife turned right. With commendable restraint the lady in the Sat Nav said she would recalculate but when she suggested we go on for 1.2 of a mile to turn right at the T Junction my wife perversely turned left. Again, without a trace o impatience, the lady in the Sat Nav offered to recalculate. She repeated the offer five times in the fifty mile journey to the hospital, usually because the two of them had different views on which outlet from roundabouts the car should take.

“Well,” I said, “you won’t want to waste money on one of them!”

It had the desired effect. We are going out on Monday to buy a Sat Nav.

It being Christmas, this column is happy to extend its hospitality to my chum, the gifted writer Colin Dunne. Another chum John Julius Norwich publishes a “Christmas Cracker”, an annual collection of amusing apercus and cuttings in which I have managed to make two appearances over the years.

Colin sends me this gem which I have put up as a Cracker:


A factual account by Wilbur Smith

The plight of the Black Rhinoceros is due mostly to the value of
its horn and the ferocious poaching that this engenders. However, a
contributory factor to the declining rhino population is the animals’
disorganized mating habits. It seems that the female rhino only becomes receptive to the male's attentions every three years or so, a condition known quite appropriately as "Must".

In the early Sixties, I was invited, along with a host of journalists and other luminaries, to be present at an attempt by the Rhodesian Game and Tsetse Department to solve this problem of poor timing. The idea was to capture a male rhino and induce him to deliver up that which could be stored until that day in the distant future when his mate's fancy turned lightly to thoughts of love. We departed from the Zambezi Valley in an impressive convoy of trucks and Land Rovers, counting in our midst none other than the Director of the Game Department in person, together with his minions, a veterinary surgeon, an electrician and sundry other technicians. Game scouts had been sent out to scout the bush for the largest, most virile rhino. They led us to a beast at least the size of a small granite koppie with a horn on his nose considerably longer than my arm. The trick was to get this monster into a robust mobile pen.

With the Director of the Game Department shouting frantic orders from the safety of the largest truck, the pursuit was on. The tumult and the shouting were apocalyptic. Clouds of dust flew in all directions, trees and vegetation were destroyed, game scouts scattered like chaff, but finally the rhino had about a litre of narcotics shot into his rump and his mood became dreamy and benign. With forty black game guards heaving and shoving, and the Director still shouting orders from the truck, the rhino was wedged into his cage, and stood there with a happy grin on his face.

At this stage, the Director deemed it safe to emerge from the cab of his truck, resplendent in starched and immaculately ironed
bush jacket with a colourful silk scarf at this throat. With an imperial gesture, he ordered the portable electric generator to be brought forward and positioned behind the captured animal. This was a machine which was capable of lighting up a small city, equipped with two wheels.

The Director climbed up on the generator to explain that an
electrode inserted into the rhino's rear end would deliver a mild electric shock, enough to pull his trigger. The Director gave another order and the veterinary surgeon greased something like an acoustic torpedo attached to the generator with sturdy insulated wires. He then went up behind the somnolent beast and thrust it up him to a full arm’s length, at which the rhino opened his eyes very wide indeed. The veterinary and his two black assistants now moved into position with a large bucket. We, the audience, crowded closer. The Director, still mounted on the generator trailer, nodded to the electrician who threw the switch - and chaos reigned.

In the subsequent departmental enquiry the blame was placed squarely on the shoulders of the electrician. It seems that in the heat of the moment, instead of connecting up his apparatus to deliver a gentle 5 volts, he had crossed his wires and the rhino received a full 500 volts up his rear end. Four tons of rhinoceros shot six feet straight up in the air. The cage, made of great timber baulks, exploded in pieces and the rhinoceros took off at a gallop.

We, the audience, took to the trees with alacrity. This was the only occasion on which I have ever been passed by two journalists half way up a Mopane tree. From the top branches we beheld an amazing sight, for the chariot was still connected to the rhinoceros’s rectum, and the Director of the Game Department was still mounted upon it, very much like Ben Hur, the charioteer. As they disappeared from view, the rhinoceros was snorting and blowing like a steam locomotive and the Director was clinging to the front rail of his chariot and howling like the north wind, which only encouraged the beast to greater speed.

The story has a happy ending, for the following day after the Director had returned hurriedly to his office in Salisbury, another male rhinoceros was captured and caged and this time the electrician got his wiring right.

A nice Christmas story for you from Mike Flynn:

An elderly wheelchair-bound woman and two female accomplices are being chased by police over the theft of a Christmas elf named 'Chippy' from a garden centre.

The two-foot-high, lucky mascot with an emerald green outfit and rosy-cheeked smile, was part of a 'Santa's grotto' display at Woodcote Green Garden Centre in Wallington, south London.

The 'elf-nappers', caught in the act on CCTV, left the garden centre's chiefs stunned that 'anyone would stoop so low'.

Meanwhile the good news is that young criminals are being given party bags of sweets on their first night behind bars. Ashfield Young Offenders’ Institution, in Gloucestershire, believes it helps them settle in to their new surroundings.

The bags contain fudge, Refreshers and Polos.

Saturday, 10 December 2011


I have just finished what will almost certainly be my last book. Oddly it is not the writing I will miss. This blog uses up a week’s intellectual energy. The great joy of authorship is researching, gradually assembling the building blocks of books. The excitement of discovering gems of information which others have missed; of gradually bringing your subject to life.

The best time was researching my book on Owain Glyndwr when for two years or more I immersed myself in medieval life. I share the Buddhist belief that there is no such thing as death. Everything else in nature recurs. Why not the human spirit? Since it has no physical substance it cannot decay as the body does. I think we have lived in every age since time began so that researching the lives of people in the fourteenth century was more remembering than discovering.

Living in the Middle Ages was pure joy. There was something deeply endearing about its inhabitants. It is like living in Christmas before it became a vulgar sales opportunity. Even the carols are better and plain song is music at its most harmonious.

The medieval Chronicles were pure tabloid journalism. Adam of Usk’s writings were a series of the sort of page leads the Mirror used to produce in the days when it was a newspaper. He described the ceremony of proving the Pope was a man by examining his private parts whilst he was seated on a commode like seat, before an audience of thousands. When th Priest announced “ He Has Balls” the congregation roared back “ God Be Praised”,He wrote of a hound devoted to Richard II until he was deposed when it left him for his successor Henry IV.

So obsessed did I become with Medieval monk artists that I made a collection of facsimiles of their breath-taking illuminated manuscripts; the books of hours with lively pictures of peasant life; the Psalters where the margins are filled with drawings of piety and the scribbles of fornicating monks at play. But above all I loved the Bestiaries in which the fact they hadn’t seen so many of the beasts did not prevent the scribes from describing them.

Thus the beaver, whose testicles are used in medicine and eagerly sought.When it is pursued it bites them off and throws them to their hunter. Chased a second time, it stands on its back legs to demonstrate it no longer possesses them.

Elephants, which are unable to bend their legs, sleep leaning against trees. Hunters are advised to partly saw the trunks of trees so that they will break under the elephant’s weight and the beast fall over.

The panther, which is prey to all creatures because of the sweetness of its breath, eludes capture by throwing crystal balls as it flees. The hunters pause and, mistaking their reflection for a rival, stay to fight it whilst the panther breathes a perfumed sigh of relief. The ibex has two horns which are so strong that when it falls from a high precipice its horns bear the weight of its body and it escapes unhurt. Or my favourite:

“The unicorn, which is also called the rhinoceros in Greek. It can be caught in the following fashion; a girl who is a virgin is led to the place where it dwells and left alone there. As soon as the unicorn sees her it jumps into her lap and embraces her and goes to sleep there; then the hunters capture it.”

My most exciting find was a sort of medieval “Health and Safety” regulations for waging war.It was an insert folded into the Black Book of the Admiralty . Making war on holy days is forbidden and the discomfort of being under siege can be eased. The siege is lifted until an agreed date. If the town is not relieved by that date it surrenders.

War was taken very seriously. When Edward I captured a Scottish castle he invited its constable to a sumptuous feast.

But when he saw the amount of supplies in the castle Edward decided that the Constable could have opposed him more vigorously. He had him beheaded for not resisting the king’s attack.


Today six dozen ex-matelots and their families are gathering at the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire to witness the unveiling of a small memorial to the survivors of the battleships “The Prince of Wales” and ”The Repulse” which were sunk by the Japanese off Singapore on December 10, 1941, three days after Pearl Harbour. Pearl Harbour is commemorated with parades and services. The Prince of Wales has declined an invitation to attend the Staffordshire gathering and the Royal Navy is represented by a Petty Officer. The £13,000 cost of the memorial has been met by families and well wishers.

I am no fan of Churchill who I believe was the Alastair Campbell of his day. A gifted spin doctor. As a war leader he was abysmal. He over ruled the First Sea Lord, Sir Dudley Pound, who favoured a slow build up in the Indian Ocean. Churchill insisted on a more aggressive strategy and sent the two battleships into the thick of battle without air cover. The ships were attacked by 85 Jap fighter bombers. More than 800 sailors were drowned or burned to death. Gallipoli, which he also master-minded, had taught Churchill nothing.

Writing in the Spectator some years ago, the historian Noble Frankland pointed out that Churchill, the architect of the debacles of Gallipoli and Norway, thought that air supremacy on a battlefield would add complication without advantage; that the Germans would be unable to break the French on the Western Front. (He also sacrificed the entire Highland Division by insisting it fought on at St Valery after the evacuation of the BEF in a silly attempt to keep France in the war). He thought the Japanese would be too cautious to enter the war. If they did Singapore would be invulnerable. He thought that neither submarines nor aircraft would pose a serious threat to battleships. He despatched the battleships "Prince of Wales" and "Repulse" to Singapore without air cover and both were sunk.

I think the Prince of Wales might have spared time to honour his namesake or the Navy which has more admirals than ships might have spared one.


To our nephew Rutti Lucas who has just been appointed to a new job with British Oxygen. He will be devising computer models (???) to optimize energy use in chemical production facilities (???).

The question marks because none of the family, which includes a raft of Oxbridge scholars, has the slightest idea what it is.

Saturday, 3 December 2011


I used to go for walks. Now I have a daily stumble. More particularly I stumble from bench to bench in our lovely riverside park where the water is fringed by magnificent giant willows. I can sit for hours drinking in their beauty.

The Council has recently spent many thousands of pounds installing CCTV cameras along the main path in the park overlooking the benches to spot people breaking the law.

The new cameras disclosed an alarming state of affairs.

People have been sitting on a bench next to the children’s playground.

Not only sitting either. Congregating and drinking and taking drugs, like as not. The Council faced with this alarming situation acted immediately.

It has removed the bench.

Benches remain in less accessible areas of the park offering unlimited access for furtive congregation and orgies unlimited. But the bench where my crippled caravanserai rested has been taken away.

I am unable to explore the dank caves of the civic mind, and admittedly removing the benches is an effective means of preventing people from sitting on them. We could wipe out burglary in a trice by getting rid of our possessions and there would be no rape if women were banned from public places. Dig up the roads and immediately end drunken driving and other lesser motoring offences.

Fenland March is not alone. A reader Chris Sheridan writes: “This is a collection of letters sent to a newspaper local to me after it had asked for examples of stupidity:


The traffic light on the corner buzzes when the lights turn red and it is safe to cross the road. I was crossing with an intellectually challenged friend of mine.

She asked if I knew what the buzzer was for.

I explained that it signals blind people when the light is red.

Appalled, she responded, 'What on earth are blind people doing driving?'

She is a Local County Council employee in Harrow, Middlesex. (And she's NOT blonde).


I live in a semi-rural area. We recently had a new neighbour call the Highways Department to request the removal of the 'DEER CROSSING' sign from our road.

The reason: 'Too many deer are being hit by cars on this stretch of road! I don't think this is a good place for them to be crossing anymore.'

If the civic mind is difficult to explore, how much more are the cavernous depths of the Government’s mind?

There are, they tell us, a million unemployed youngsters. There are also 75,000 new jobs but all have been taken by immigrants. There is a massive debt hanging over us. Most of it incurred by unnecessary wars. According to the Government-funded Riots, Communities and Victims’ Panel, last summer’s riots were our fault. Our conspicuous consumption infected the young rioters. The Panel missed out the bit most of us accept. If you want something, you get a job to pay for it. Not only does the Government encourage teenage reluctance to behave in a civilised manner by making discipline rather than ill discipline illegal; not only does it pay them more in benefit than they would get from a job. It has just announced a five per cent increase in benefits.

Collapse of the Euro, capitalism creaking, riots all over the world, a broken society, costly Olympic Games and a national outcry over an off the cuff joke by Jeremy Clarkson who was just doing what the BBC pays him £1 million to make. Collapse of the £30 million trial of eight police officers on charges of perverting the course of justice because the evidence has been destroyed. Victory for Muslim extremists in Tunisia and Egypt, the inevitable result of the Arab Spring, and expensive unnecessary wars

Could it be we are living through the collapse of Western Civilisation and the renaissance of the Moors? Either that or on the verge on the German Empire?


It may read like the work of Thomas the Tank Engine author Wilbert Awdry but a bureaucratic banana skin has been dropped before the Ffestiniog and Welsh Highland Railways which helped influence the writer’s work.

Alongside the railways’ quaint little Victorian coaches is number 122, built in a matching style a decade ago as more and more passengers flocked to the twin railways, which carried a record-breaking 300,000 visitors into Snowdonia National Park this year.

Official accessibility regulations apply to British railway coaches built after 1999 – but a wheelchair-friendly toilet simply wouldn’t fit inside the tiny narrow-gauge coaches that ply between Porthmadog and Blaenau Ffestiniog.

So the UK Government granted a special order in 2003 exempting “Vehicle Number 122” from the regulations. However, that order is now among 200 railway regulations which may be thrown onto the Coalition Government’s bonfire of “red tape”.

If the Ffestiniog order goes up in flames, coach 122 may no longer be able to carry passengers unless the Government makes alternative arrangements.

The Government’s “Red Tape Challenge” is examining more than 21,000 statutory rules and regulations, aiming to reduce the burdens on businesses and society. Introducing the rail Red Tape Challenge this month, the Department for Transport (DfT) said: “The presumption is that regulations will go, unless it can be justified why a regulation should be kept.”

A DfT spokesman said the Ffestiniog order and others were on the Red Tape Challenge website for the public and stakeholders to comment on, as part of the process of identifying regulations considered to be of benefit to passengers.

Paul Lewin, general manager of the Ffestiniog and Welsh Highland Railways, said the rail accessibility rules – designed for main line trains such as the Virgin Pendolino – should never have applied to Britain’s heritage railways, which let visitors experience steam-age travel.

The Heritage Railway Association had campaigned for Britain’s preserved railways to be covered separately.

“We were aiming for a block exemption so that people didn’t have to put a wheelchair toilet in a carriage dating back 150 years, which would be crazy,” said Mr Lewin. “You can’t physically fit a wheelchair toilet pack from a Virgin Pendolino into a narrow-gauge train, because it’s wider than the coaches.”

His railways have their own ways of catering for disabled visitors. There are ramps for wheelchairs to board trains and guards shout out station names, because tannoy announcements or electronic displays would spoil the interior ambience.

The 2003 exemption order, signed by then transport minister Tony McNulty, lists the ways coach 122 doesn’t comply with the rules, including:

* No audible device to warn when doors are unlocked

* No public address system

* No wheelchair space

* Door handles too stiff

Getting that exemption was so complicated that managers stopped building new coaches at their Porthmadog workshops and have since imported second-hand ones – which are exempt from the rulings – from Romania.

Reader Ken Ashton writes:

You'll like this...

One of my students, a Nigerian, has written to my daughter at the Zoo, requesting...

Free tickets for family

Free flights from Nigeria

Free accommodation

Help with visa application

T-shirts in various sizes

Finance to finish his course

As my Mum used to say, if you don't ask, you don't get.

Except in this case he won't get.

Saturday, 26 November 2011


Humiliations abound with age. This week I had a dementia test. It was just a test of memory, though it happened on Wednesday and I have forgotten what it involved. I do remember that I am halfway to dementia which conjures up a life in a strait jacket lived in a padded cell. Not for the first time I was struck with the terrible power of words and how they are linguistic chameleons able to dilute and intensify their power at will.

What is now ”dementia“ was once a chummy “hard of hearing”. I used to have depressions which are now the more sinister Bi-Polar episodes. Four letter obscenities and less unpleasant oaths are now part of the lingua franca and often used in newspaper comments and are indispensable in plays. If I used the word “nigger” in any medium I would be sacked. Yet in my youth it was the name of a river which gave its name to a country. I remember the affection in which the Nigger Minstrels and the gollywog were held. I always shared my bed with Teddy and a gollywog. Now the teddy reigns alone.


The news that the TUC is launching a pop song urging people to strike adds a new dimension of horror to our troubled Economic Times. What use will it be? I would suggest if you added together all the lyrics of pop songs performed over the past twenty years you would have difficulty assembling a coherent sentence.

Truly the world of pop entertainment is a jungle. The heartless elimination of Bleakley and Chiles from the “Daybreak” programme a year after they had been lured from “The One Show” is alarming. Their failure in the programme after their success in “The One Show”, a success which is being reaped by their successors, should lead ITV to think that the fault lies not in their stars but in themselves. ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++


Widow devastated to find 'mound of mud' in place of memorial

Even cross bearing name of Second World War mechanic was taken away

Authority acted because records showed grave had not been paid for

But family claim it was bought by funeral directors 23 years ago


Council workers have left a family distraught after stripping a war hero's grave bare in a row over who owns the plot.

Widow Judy Collins, 72, found decorations had been removed when she turned up to pay her respects.

In place of her late husband Harry's memorial was a mound of mud, she claimed.



Let's be honest, Irish schools would probably be well advised to drop Irish classes completely and instead simply replace them with German language lessons.

After all, when you consider that one of Angela Merkel's aides sneered to David Cameron last week that "soon all of Europe will be speaking German", you can see what they have planned for us.

Sure, they may have lost two world wars, as the English never tire of telling them. But this time they have managed to conquer Europe and effectively colonise it without having to fire a single shot.

It seems that after years of them behaving nicely and being rather apologetic about that whole bit of bother between 1939-45, they have now decided that, given their current pre-eminent status on this continent, that they're not going to apologise forever.

That can be the only conclusion drawn from the latest war-related story to do with that country.

As you may know, those super-fun happy Germans had an unfortunate habit of importing hundreds of thousands of slave labourers from countries they had occupied, and one of the worst-affected victims was Belgium.

About 200,000 Belgian men were kidnapped from their own country and brought to work at places like Nordhausen, where the V2 project was based but, after long negotiations between the two countries, Germany finally agreed in 2005 to pay the surviving slaves a lump sum and a pension.

And now they want to tax it.

As the furious Belgian finance minister says: "It is shocking that people who, during World War II, were forced to work by the Nazis have now received tax demands related to the compensation they received."

He then went on to describe the move as "incredibly insensitive".

An insensitive German?

My God, who ever heard of such a thing?

Ian O’Doherty


A leading Welsh nationalist has called for the principality’s national daily newspaper to be taken into public ownership. Bethan Jenkins, who sits for Plaid Cymru in the Welsh Assembly, said radical measures were needed to save The Western Mail from decline. Writing on an independent Welsh news website, she said the Assembly government should nationalise the paper before handing it over to a not-for-profit company run by journalists. Its current owners, Trinity Mirror, told the BBC they were “not going to dignify this with a comment.” The call follows the announcement this week of a further 14 job losses at TM’s Cardiff-based Media Wales operation which includes the Western Mail.

Saturday, 19 November 2011

Ich Bin Definitely NOT a Berliner

Radio Fourceps’ obsession with science programmes is driving tenants of Skidmore Parva shrieking back to newspapers which are united this week in warning of a German takeover of Europe.

Bismarck invented my favourite drink, Black Velvet, a mixture of stout and champagne. Perhaps being part of the German Empire he envisaged won’t be so bad. Though I would not eat black bread and sauerkraut, not if Hell had me.

Poor Bismarck, he must be wearing out jackboots in Valhalla, kicking himself when he works out the cost of his own failed attempts at domination. The first try gave him the taste. When he won the Franco Prussian war France had to pay him an indemnity of 5 billion dollars. From then on things went downhill. World War One cost Germany 37,775 million dollars and World War Two was even worse. It brought Germany a bill of 414trillion dollars. He could have got 27 countries free if he had thought of inventing the Euro.

War making was an expensive folly and they wisely gave it up. America, alas, did not. Their efforts to bring democracy to the Third World at the point of a gun has cost them 6 trillion dollars, which would have repaid their one trillion dollar debt to China and reduced their total debt which stands at 14 trillion dollars. Make money not war is a slogan that has brought Germany the role that America has vacated. We would be debt free too had we not chosen to join them in their crazy adventures.

The end result? Europe, we learn, is run by the Frankfurt Group of eight men led by Angela Merkel and the only bonds the market is buying are German. This week, flushed with success at the peaceful invasion of Greece and Italy, they put us firmly in place when they ordered Britain to put up or shut up about funds to help bankrupt countries. We are anti-Europe as a nation but our Prime Minister has just agreed a two percent rise in the EU's budget, despite the fact the EU cannot get its accounts past its own accountants

It is worth remembering that it is not Germany’s industry that has put her in the pound seats. I was there after the war and I saw the amount of money the Allies poured into Western Germany to rebuild its economy. Industry was given massive grants to buy the best machinery, factories sprang up. The reason the land rover is build of aluminium is that our car industry was forbidden to use steel which all went to export and mostly to Germany. I was friendly with the editor of the Bielefeld News, a weekly paper which was given state of the art machinery when Allied Newspapers, for which I worked in civilian life, was produced on antique presses.

I was on leave when the Mark was devalued. The Germany I left was shabby, the shops were empty. I returned a fortnight later to an entirely different country. Shop windows filled with goods, restaurants doing a roaring trade. Signs of prosperity I didn’t see at home. I went to the Hanover State Fair which was a revelation. There I saw machinery and vehicles, wines and smart furniture, designer clothes; I even bought a dachshund. Things were on sale there that we did not see in Britain for many years. The Allies put Germany ahead of the game in a desperate effort to prevent communism getting a hold.

A few years later I returned to Germany as the guest of 616 RAF Squadron of jet fighters. When I saw the new Germany I knew who had really won the war

If Germany does decide to occupy she will find willing recruits to run Britain where this week a mother-of-three was fined almost £500 for dropping a cigarette.

Tracey John, 48, was smoking on her front doorstep when she was seen by a litter enforcement officer as she dropped the butt on the pavement outside her home.

Nigel Wheeler, service director for Streetcare at Rhondda Cynon Taf Council said: “Eco-criminals will not be tolerated. The illegal disposal of cigarette related waste is the biggest single problem throughout the area. As well as creating unsightly environmental conditions, the offence can attract vermin. The Streetcare Enforcement Team will do all in its power to eradicate this type of behaviour.”

A coroner yesterday issued a damning verdict on rulebook-obsessed fire chiefs who ordered colleagues not to rescue a dying woman trapped down a mine shaft.

Lawyer Alison Hume could have survived if rank and file firefighters at the scene had been allowed to do their job and bring her out, said Sheriff Desmond Leslie.

Instead, the senior officers’ ‘fundamentalist adherence’ to health and safety procedures and failure to take account of the extreme urgency of the situation resulted in the mother-of-two remaining at the bottom of the shaft in Ayrshire for almost six hours after Strathclyde Fire and Rescue arrived.

Fire crews refused to use a winch to pull her to safety because its policy was only to use the rescue equipment to save its own staff.

Ve haf vays of making you balk...........

The BMA, an organisation which will fit happily into a Gesundheit und Sicherheit (Health and Safety) culture seeks to make it illegal to smoke cigarettes in a car. They claim it results in concentrations of toxic fumes. Odd that. After five years research the World Health Organisation failed to find evidence that “second-hand smoke” was harmful.

My chum Monte Fresco offered this cynical but fair comment on the EU:

“Some years ago a small rural town in Italy twinned with a similar town in Greece.

“The Mayor of the Greek town visited the Italian town. When he saw the palatial mansion belonging to the Italian mayor he wondered how he could afford such a house. The Italian said: ‘You see that bridge over there? The EU gave us a grant to build a two-lane bridge, but by building a single lane bridge with traffic lights at either end this house could be built.’

“The following year the Italian visited the Greek town. He was simply amazed at the Greek Mayor's house, gold taps, marble floors, it was marvellous. When he asked how this could be afforded the Greek said: ‘You see that bridge over there?’

“The Italian replied: ‘No.’


We have been turning off Radio Fourceps quite a lot. The final straw was an apparently endless series of lectures on the brain. As the last programme faded into oblivion it left me confident I could undertake a simple trepanning, though I cannot think I would find a use for knowing how to stitch a human ear on the back of a mouse. Not for the first time I am left wondering where on earth the BBC goes for controllers. This new one is clearly the product of a laboratory, though obviously not one that specialises in brains.

In order to accommodate the science programmes the new Controller has moved more popular programmes from their pole positions to less listened-to tracts of the radio desert, the late afternoons. When I took over the “Archives” programme on R4 I had an audience of around ten million. Not because I was good. The “Archives” programme at 9 am followed the “Today” programme and benefited from their audience.

When years later Radio Wales wanted rid of me they moved my programmes from lunchtime to late afternoon in the vain hope that I would lose listeners. I imagine that is why an excellent programme “Feedback” which is critical of the BBC has been moved from lunchtime to late afternoon. It is not the only casualty. For reasons which have nothing to do with quality, the lunchtime news programme has been extended and a number of good programmes have been uprooted. I prefer the thinking of the early broadcasters who would occasionally inform listeners “There is no important news today” and put on a gramophone record. If I were controller I would replace all the “news” magazines with brief news bulletins. That would end a nice little earner for windy MPs and the organising secretaries of the various organisations for interfering with practically everything. I would also be glad to hear the new Controller’s excuse for airing the sexist “Woman’s Hour”.

Friday, 11 November 2011

The Night It Never Dawned on Me

Taz our greyhound like most of his kind has two speeds. Fast and fast asleep. So Celia takes him for walks and I handle the sleeping challenge.

Most of the time we have short sleeping bouts to see who sleeps the longest. When the Ferret has an away-day we are into marathon sleeping.

I thought I was the easy victor on Bonfire Night when I settled down to listen to the one o’ clock news and woke up the next day. It was growing light and after a crafty croissant I went to bed for a Sunday lie in. Difficulty dozing off because for some reason everyone in the town was letting off fireworks before lunch. When I next woke it had gone dark. My watch said eleven o’ clock but there was something amiss. I switched on the new science network on BBC Radio Fourceps, and that is when I realised I had reached the End of the World. It was still dark and there wasn’t a programme about how the bowel works. Even worse. It was a play by Pinter. It was only when I went to the front door and the Sunday Times wasn’t there that the light began to dawn. Literally.

It was still Saturday.


I did not have one myself so I don't understand the fuss about education. There must be cheaper ways of keeping children off our backs. The things we teach!

Science and law and rhetoric are what universities were invented for. The rest is jobs for the boys.

Just imagine. It is the Middle Ages and there are these three villeins and one says: "What line you in, then?"

"I teach law at the university."

"Teach? What is teach?"

"I stand up in front of these kids and I tell them how to be lawyers."

"Could end up with more lawyers than jobs."

"Ain't that the truth? But we solved it. The ones don't get jobs, they teach other kids to be lawyers. What’s your line?"

"I write books, but the pay is lousy."

"You should teach. Three months’ holiday a year. All found."

"What can I teach? I just sit down and write."

"It’s not what you teach. It’s what you call it. Let’s see. Books. Latin, ‘libra’. Librature? Doesn't have a ring. That’s it, Literature. You married?"

"On my wages?"

"So you're a bachelor. Great. Bachelor of Arts."

The third villein says could they find him a job and the first chap says: "What do you do?"

"Not a lot. I keep a diary."

“Your Story. Let’s run that up the flagpole and see if it waves...Hang about.Teach what is in everyone else's diary - His Story. You'll do a bomb."

"But I don't KNOW what's in everyone's diary."

"Use your imagination, everyone else did. The Romans claimed they were descended from a wolf and there was this Greek guy Herodotus who invented men whose heads grew out of their chests. Never looked back."

That is how education was born.


Lenin has had 87 years; for Jimmy Savile, a disc jockey turned turbo-charged charity-fundraiser, the honour of lying in state was to last just a single day. But what a day - a blinged up cowboy, Santa, a Royal Marine and a nun in a wheelchair were among the 5,000 that filed passed his gold-covered coffin in a Leeds hotel. Sir Jimmy is to be buried in his trademark tracksuit with two expensive cigars to impress God, along with his Royal Marines bravery medal and Green Beret. He will be buried in Scarborough with his coffin at 45 degrees 'so he can see the sea', said Howard Silverman, his lifelong friend.

The Independent and The Sun.


My cousin Mary Gregory offers this:

> Boy, if this doesn't hit the nail on the head, I don't know what does!
> Two patients limp into two different medical clinics with the same complaint. Both have trouble walking and appear to require a hip replacement.
> The FIRST patient is examined within the hour, is x-rayed the same day and has a time booked for surgery the following week.
> The SECOND sees his family doctor after waiting 3 weeks for an appointment, then waits 8 weeks to see a specialist, then gets an x-ray which isn't reviewed for another week, and finally has his surgery scheduled for 6 months from then.
> Why the different treatment for the two patients?

> The FIRST is a Golden Retriever.
> The SECOND is a Senior Citizen.
> Next time take me to a vet!
But only if you are very rich...(Ed)

Saturday, 5 November 2011

Be Fair to Greeks Seeking Gifts

I have known Junes by the score, even a girl called April. Marys, Celias and Pennys, heavenly and otherwise; Giselas, Rosemarys, even Ethels. I once knew a girl named Maria but I have avoided Prudence. In my view, if you are not going to spend it there is little point in wearing yourself out earning money in the first place.

I am Greece made flesh. Long holidays, short working weeks, high pensions. Fine by me. And if my debts are being paid by the Germans who seventy years ago subjected Greece to cruel occupation and slave labour, then bring it on. No wonder nationwide ceremonies to mark the anniversary of the German invasion were disrupted by demonstrators, furious that they were paying the price for the Euro’s survival.

Under the terms of the European Union’s latest bailout, VAT in Greece has been raised to 23 per cent, pensions have been cut by 20 per cent and some 30,000 public servants have been put on notice and given a whopping 60 per cent pay cut.

Last week, Mr Papandreou decided it was time to let the Greek people choose their economic destiny. As he pointed out, it would be grotesquely unfair to condemn a generation to brutal unemployment without letting the voters decide for themselves.

‘We will not implement any programme by force,’ he explained, ‘but only with the consent of the Greek people. This is our democratic tradition and we demand that it is also respected abroad.’

The precedent was set in 507 BC. In Athens in classical times all laws were decided by referendum. Every month 6,000 men met on the Pnyx, a rocky auditorium to the west of the Acropolis. It was one of the world's earliest known democratic legislatures, the material embodiment of the principle of, ‘equal speech’, i.e. the equal right of every citizen to debate matters of policy. The other two principles of democracy were firstly equality under the law and secondly equality of vote and equal opportunity to assume political office. The presiding officer of the Pnyx assembly opened each debate with the open invitation, ‘Who wishes to speak?’.

We know what our leaders think of democracy. We are spilling the blood of our children to bring democracy to the Muslim world, whether the Muslim world wants it or not. Our own incompetent Parliament is tearing itself in tatters calling for a referendum to decide whether we should stay in the EU. That, we insist, is our democratic right.

We just don’t see why other nations should share it


I have, my friends, an equal stake with you

In this our country, and I grieve to note

The sad condition of the State's affairs,

I see the state employing evermore

Unworthy ministers; if one do well

A single day, he'll act amiss for ten.

You trust another; he'll be ten times worse.

Aristophanes: Ecclesiazusae (393 BC)

Mind you, it would be as well not to imitate them too closely. The Persians, who had trouble with them, had a proverb:

Zeus had five wives. One of them was his aunt, another was his elder sister and a third one he ate. If my aunt had a beard, she would have been my uncle.

All in all, if you think of life as a cinema I am glad I have moved from the dress circle to the fire exit.

Success is very tiring and the more of it you have the more tiring it gets; the more things you are asked to do, boards to join, audiences to address.

I am devoted to constructive failure, which I define as climbing just so far up the ladder to enjoy the view without getting out of breath; but not so high as to get vertigo.

I once interviewed Charlie Chaplin when he disappeared and I found him in a Doncaster hotel re-visiting the theatres he played as a child.

I pointed out that he had vanished in the clothes he stood up in, no suitcases, not even a clean shirt.

He said: ‘Listen, my boy. Success is when all you have to pack is a wallet.’

Friday, 28 October 2011


The wise therefore rule by emptying hearts and stuffing bellies, by weakening ambitions and strengthening bones.
If men lack knowledge and desire, then clever people will not try to interfere.
If nothing is done, then all will be well.


Obesity does not kill. I am 10 stone overweight, I have shrunk to five foot six and at 82 I continue to confound the medical profession. Diabetes under control, alcoholism a distant but happy memory, liver recovered. Couldn’t wait to tell the doctor my glad tidings.

“Old news,” he told me. “Recent research has shown us there is no relation of obesity to mortality.”

Sometimes I think doctors enjoy watching us suffer on endless diets and denials.

That at the end of another Week Dolorous in which no orifice remained unplumbed.This picture is more a motorway map than portrait. The medical profession is at its happiest snapping away at my innards in pursuit of cancer camps. Now they have a new and thrilling quest: the Mystery of the Missing Blood, about an armful on the Hancock Scale. Wielding an intrusive camera, Dr Bloodhound left no bowel cranny unturned this week. What used to be my colon is now busier – and as often photographed - as the road from Benghazi to Tripoli.

And all this in the week when my rival the M25 had its 25th birthday.

Eager pharmaceutical paparazzi have once again photographed my every available tubular wall and some I had always hoped were unavailable. But no. They seek blood here, they seek blood there, those cameras seek blood everywhere. And that is not the worst of it. Ownership of a colonoscopy adds a fresh dimension of horror to the pre-op purging.

Nothing more to do but lie back and think of England. As so often at times of stress I went scurrying to the past. In this case to the Beaumaris Festival, my favourite time in my favourite town, where every year I interviewed the stars before a lovely audience.

So many golden memories. Asking the opera giant Geraint Evans how he got the ideas for his splendid make ups and being told, “If I had known you when I was preparing Falstaff I would have modelled him on you.” And then shortly afterwards getting a photo inscribed “From One Falstaff to Another”.

Telling the glamorous pianist Moura Lympany I had fallen love with her as a child because during austerity wartime she had worn such glamorous frocks. “Made out of second hand curtains,” she confessed. So I had fallen in love with soft furnishings, I told her, which amused her so much she invited my wife and me to stay with her in Rasigueres in the South of France. Alas, the proposed biography did not come off.

I usually insisted on one to one interviews but on one occasion I agreed to interview four. Alas that meant I only had time for a brief chat with soprano Rebecca Evans of whom I am a slavish admirer. She was still nursing in a South Wales hospital and singing in off duty moments and she too confessed she had made her own frock.

I have the fondest memories of Tito Beltran, a thoroughly nice man and supremely talented. Pursued by women who were to become his downfall. One persuaded a court in Sweden she had not consented to love making. Tito, the gentlest and most courteous of men, was sentenced to a term in gaol I am convinced he did not deserve.

Meanwhile back at the Blood Letting - or to put it more accurately Veins to Let - Dr Bloodhound is forced to admit failure. Intestine, intestine everywhere but not a drop to drink for eager vampires.

Dr Bloodhound is not beaten yet. He is sending me to another branch of the questing camera. This time in Kettering, where more of the Bloodhound pack has got a tiny camera housed in a capsule which I swallow. It enables them to draw coverts as yet undrawn in body parts unhunted. Truly a blood sport but as yet no word on how they are going to retrieve their camera. I don’t like the idea of it endlessly questing like some tireless vein vole.


Tycoons’ salaries have leapt up 50 per cent and are rightly condemned by politicians who are refusing to increase their contribution to their own over-generous pensions.

Saturday, 22 October 2011


In another life I was Welsh so I took last week’s World Cup debacle very personally indeed.

My rare Welsh bits are used to being upset. It used to annoy me that the Welsh were seen as narrow- minded chapel-goers, in suits made from the battered covers of old prayer books. I even took sides in the deep enmity which exists between North and South Wales. It can be virulent. The usually benign novelist Gwyn Thomas, a South Walian, said of the Northerners: “Their idea of gaiety is a purple spotted shroud.”

That is neither true nor kind. Rene Cutforth was nearer the mark with his “Mediterranean in the rain”. Certainly that is true of the 'gwerin', the working men and women I knew when I lived on Anglesey. It was the faux middle class who invented nationalism, largely to ring fence the good jobs on offer.

The Welsh gwerin is witty, funny, generous, and it respects scholarship. It would never occur to them to think of creative writing - as the English do - as a hobby. The Welsh peasants are quick witted and wildly generous. An eminent psychiatrist Dafydd Alun Jones once pointed out to me that 'spree' is a Welsh word (sbri in Welsh). It describes the actions of God-fearing farmers who disappear for days of revelry. Only getting home in time for Sunday chapel.

He said the reason his countrymen had so many religious revivals was that their eagerness to debauch was forever leading them to the edge of the Pit, from which the revivals dragged them back.

My mates were people like Hughie Bugail who was our village policeman. Well, that is what the Chief Constable thought. Bugail means shepherd and Hughie's main occupation was policing the flock of pedigree sheep he kept on Malltraeth Marshes, breeding and training sheepdogs, and the only crooks he collared were shepherds' crooks that were works of art.

Bob Ty Lawr lived in a barn with his long dog Fly. When he was refused a drink in a posh coastal pub, the Mermaid, he picked up a goldfish bowl from the bar, drank it, ate the fish, stamped out of the pub, jumped into the Menai Strait and swam to Caernarfon, where he had four pints in The Castle and then swam back.

Eddie Pont Dic was part cap, an oily plate that grew like a fungus from the top of his head. He observed of caravanners who rented his orchard: “Funny people the Sais (English). They eats in the garden and shits in the house.”

Owen Thief was a brilliant footballer. He had the talent of a young George Best. He was the only boy to be capped twice for the Welsh Schoolboys. Everton snatched him up as soon as he left school. An Anglesey boy who had barely crossed the Menai Bridge except to pay football, the bright lights of Liverpool dazzled him. On his first night he fell into bad company and discovered drink. Subsequently he was sent to prison where he shared a cell with Harry McVicar.

I once gave it as my opinion that Gwyn the Lift was the perfect name for the village taxi driver. I was deafened by snorts of disbelief. ”Don't leave anything lying about,“ I was warned.

Gwyn shared the wife of a farm labourer by whom he had a son. He blamed it on the black-out. Both he and his wife took a great interest in the boy's welfare and visited him weekly. The labourer explained to me: “I don't like what is going on but what can I do? I have got to have my shirts washed.”

The wife of an oyster farmer, Terry Barrack, moved in with the landlord of the local inn, The Groeslon. “It's terrible,” Terry told me, “I have to go all the way to Menai Bridge for a pint.”

Our councillor's husband Glyn Brownson, who was half Indian, was known as “Glyndustani”. An Indian pedlar who came to his door was met with a torrent of Indian. “Go easy,” said the pedlar nervously in a broad Welsh accent, “I'm from Cardiff.”

After dining with the script writer John Stephenson, I realised that I kept swerving to the wrong side of the road. I stopped the car at the nearest phone box.

“Who you ringing?” asked John. “The police,” I told him. ”I need a lift home.”

Horrified, he insisted on taking the wheel. I told Gwyn, our other bobby, about it and it was his turn to be horrified. “He had no right stopping you ringing me,” he said. ”That is how accidents are caused.”

My wife and I were under the protective wing of the village family of black sheep, called cruelly the 'cacau' (shit). The eldest, Trefor, asked me if I had any gardening jobs. Since it was December, I had none. So he went to the Groeslon, snatched the till and ran away with it. He got about five yards - and two years in prison.

His brother Raymond came to us every year for his Christmas dinner (we subsequently discovered he went to five other houses). Trefor had told me it was my fault he stole the till because I wouldn't give him any gardening. The logic was faulty but I still felt guilty. Raymond told me that because of a warders' strike his brother was being held in a police station cell in Wrexham. I had many friends there from my days as a freelance in Chester so I rang the custody sergeant to ask him to put Trefor on the phone so we could wish him a Merry Christmas.

The sergeant quivered with indignation: “You should know better, Skiddy.”

“Aw, come on,” I said, “who’s going to know?”

“It's not a matter of that,” said the sergeant, “he's not had his pudding yet. You'll have to ring back in half an hour.”

*************** * * * * * * * * *



Almina, Countess of Carnarvon, continued to dog the family from beyond the grave. On October 21, 2011, the Daily Mail published a startling exclusive.

“Downton's greatest secret: A lonely countess, an illicit love affair with an Egyptian prince... and an Earl who has no right to his title. The extraordinary claims about a real life Lord...


“Now here’s a Downton Abbey storyline that writer Julian Fellowes would dismiss as too far-fetched: that the steely Earl of Grantham has no right to his title and should be booted out of the Abbey to make way for a distant cousin.

Yet, in real life, this could indeed be the case for the poor unassuming 8th Earl of Carnarvon, whose family history has been plundered for the storyline of the top-rated TV series and whose stately home, Highclere Castle, is used as its backdrop.

“For new genealogical evidence points to the uncomfortable fact that Lord Carnarvon’s grandfather may well have been the son, not of an English aristocrat, but of an Indian prince. Furthermore, there’s evidence that the family knew about it and covered it up.”

“If this is true, it would mean that the present earl, Eton and Oxford-educated George Carnarvon, has no right to his title, and that the privilege should pass to an unassuming 39-year old Devon teacher, Alan Herbert.

“The author of a new biography of 55-year old Lord Carnarvon’s great-grandmother has unearthed explosive evidence which could alter the 218-year history of the famous title — and provide Julian Fellowes with some rich source material for the next series of Downton.

“William Cross, the writer, claims that Carnarvon’s ancestor, the 5th earl, was undersexed and showed more interest in photographs of nude women than in the real thing.

“His ‘sham’ marriage to heiress Almina Wombwell (they wed in 1895) was merely one of convenience — she brought with her a colossal fortune, just at a time when the family coffers were almost drained. The deal was, he got the money, she got a title.

“But Mr Cross says that Lord Carnarvon was not deeply attracted to his wife — nor she to him — and that sexual relations may have remained dormant long after their marriage.

“Carnarvon’s closest friend was Prince Victor Duleep Singh, a godson of Queen Victoria and the son of the last Maharajah of Lahore. Though a Sikh, he was welcome in the very highest echelons of society and was a close friend of Edward VII.

“Victor had been a friend of Carnarvon at Eton and, as they grew up, he led the young Englishman into ‘wild ways’. They gambled ruinously, and while on a trip to Egypt, Victor fixed up the young peer with a prostitute so he could lose his virginity. ’But Carnarvon contracted a malady from one of the whorehouses, and after returning to England almost died,’ reveals Mr Cross. ‘He retained for life the facial marks from the effects of the disease. Thereafter, Carnarvon was sexually blighted. His fall-back — with his valet Fernside as his confidant — was taking photographs of women. Naughty pictures became his passion, and at the height of his voyeurism he commissioned 3,000 nudes from a photographic studio.’

“If Carnarvon wasn’t interested in his new wife, ten years his junior, then his best friend was. Prince Victor practically lived at Highclere Castle, in Hampshire. ‘He had plenty of opportunity,’ says Mr Cross. Significantly, when the Countess — Almina — became pregnant, she made two sets of plans for the birth of her child.

“The first, official, plan was to have the baby delivered at the Carnarvon family home in London’s Berkeley Square. But she also rented another house — and for good reason. ‘She was terrified,’ says William Cross. ‘The safe house was her planned refuge — just in case the baby was born with the wrong skin pigment.’

In the event, she gave birth to a son on November 7, 1898, who turned out to be fair-skinned, for though Prince Victor had the dark skin of his race, his mother, Bamba, was a white woman.

“Skin colour is believed to be determined by up to seven different genes working together, so as a mixed race man Prince Victor had a mixture of genes coding for both black and white skin in his sperm — and so had the chance of having white offspring.

“In any case, the earl accepted the child as his own, and in so doing averted the inevitable divorce and loss of funds — for it was his wife’s fortune which was to allow him, in a few years’ time, to take his place in history as the man who uncovered the tomb of Tutankhamun. Almina’s riches took care of that.

Regardless of the boy’s skin colour, the peer’s abiding concern was that if it became publicly suspected that he was indeed the son of Prince Victor, it would have had ruinous consequences on the Carnarvon dynasty, and call into question the whole future of Highclere Castle itself. His wife’s closeness with the Sikh had to be hushed up.

“And so it was — until about 15 years ago, when the then earl decided to commission a biography of Almina. The incriminating evidence was uncovered by the Reverend David Sox, an American academic.

“‘Just between the two of us,’ Sox wrote to a friend soon after his findings, ‘I’ve discovered (quite by accident in the archives) that the earl’s real father was Prince Victor. Victor was constantly at Highclere, as going through my visitors’ books indicates.’

“Until Sox’s startling claim, the 7th earl, a close friend of the present Queen and her racing manager from 1969 to 2001, had made well-publicised plans to publish the biography. But as soon as the awful truth was uncovered, the book was dropped and never mentioned again.

“Sox was regarded as a reliable historian, according to the long-serving Highclere housekeeper, Maureen Cummins. She says: ‘He came into the castle and did a lot of research. In fact, he was so knowledgeable that he was employed for a time as a guide. So it is highly unlikely he would have made the story up.’

“Aristocratic families, beady about their possessions and titles, have learned over centuries how to beat off predators who, throughout history have fed off the rich and famous. The Carnarvons would not want their lands and status to pass to a junior branch of the family — and so the scandal was hushed up, the skeleton put firmly in the back of Highclere Castle’s capacious closets.

“William Bortrick, executive editor of Burke’s Peerage, is unfazed by the revelations: ‘Throughout the history of the British aristocracy such circumstances did happen,’ he says. ‘Probably more often than people realised.’

Indeed, among the present ranks of the aristocracy there is at least one duke and an earl who are generally known not to be the sons of the men outwardly thought to be their fathers.

“‘The only requirement in law is for an hereditary peer, when he succeeds to the title, to produce his birth certificate to prove his identity,’ I was told by another authority. ‘If the certificate falsely claims he is legitimate, and nobody challenges it, he goes through on the nod.’

“And so Prince Duleep’s son became an earl and nobody blinked an eye.

So the question remains – who is the real Earl of Carnarvon?

Step forward Alan Mervyn Edward Hugh Herbert, a bachelor who celebrates his 40th birthday later this month. Mr Herbert descends in a direct line from the 4th Earl of Carnarvon, his great-grandfather (and the father of the under-sexed 5th Earl). This earl married twice, and his son by the second marriage, the Hon Mervyn Herbert, was Alan’s grandfather.

“There are no other male lines of succession in the family apart from Alan and his cousin, the present ‘Earl’. A shy and retiring teacher, he lives in a flat in the large and glorious Devonshire house once owned by his family, another branch of the Carnarvon clan.

“When approached by the Mail this week and told that he had a strong claim to be the rightful Earl, he greeted the news with astonishment.

‘Wow,’ he said, very quietly. ‘I was aware we had some kind of connection with the Carnarvons but that is all. This is a big surprise, I must say. I’d be curious to know more.’

“Such curiosity could open a hornet’s nest, since quite apart from the titles, there’s the question of Highclere Castle, the Carnarvon estates and a multi-million Downton Abbey legacy at stake.

“While it doesn’t automatically follow that if he proves his superior claim to the title, family possessions would pass his way — but they might.

Author William Cross asserts that Almina Carnarvon was made to sign papers attesting to her son’s legitimacy which may well have secured the family’s millions for the present incumbents of Highclere Castle, but often lawyers have a way of finding loopholes in such deeds, particularly if the truth had not been told.

“It is too early yet for the bewildered Mr Herbert to pursue his claim to the earldom, but the door is open for him to do so.

“‘As a matter of decency and courtesy it’s usual to wait for the death of a peer before making a competing claim,’ says Ian Denyer, a Crown Office constitutional expert based at the Palace of Westminster.

‘But there’s no reason, if he wanted to ruffle some feathers, why he shouldn’t go ahead now.’

“The difficulty facing Mr Herbert is that the crucial evidence naming Prince Victor as the father of the 6th earl resides in the archives at Highclere Castle, where biographer William Cross found it.

“Of course, modern science using DNA could prove the truth once and for all. Indeed, the Sikh historian Peter Bance, who has written a biography of Prince Victor Duleep Singh, says that hair from the prince and his younger brother was kept after their deaths.

“Matched with DNA from a member of the Carnarvon family, it could be tested to prove if Mr Herbert is entitled to swap his Devon flat for a stately home in Hampshire.

“Ironically, Mr Herbert has never watched Downton Abbey, saying: ‘I did hear something about it on the radio. It sounds like something I should watch.’

If he did, he might see the 1,000-acre estate where the serial is set and consider the fickle nature of the finger of fate.”

■ The Life And Secrets Of Almina Carnarvon by William Cross can be bought via

Which reminds me that today the Ferret and I celebrate our fortieth wedding anniversary and I must go now and open the champagne, grateful that we do not know a single Indian Prince.