Thursday, February 21, 2019

Edie's Birthday

This week of the year is always a sad and difficult one for me. It is the week that my daughter Edie celebrates her birthday without me. 

She was 29 on Tuesday (19 February 2019) and I wish her well with all my heart. The day she was born, 19 February 1990, was the happiest of my life. I remember cradling her in my arms in the ward at University College Hospital in London's West End. I was overjoyed to have a lovely little baby girl.

My then-partner and I named her Edlyn, a name I recall I found and suggested. To my surprise, almost as soon as Edlyn was born, my partner started calling her Edie, a name with which I was also happy. As she grew up, I adored Edie. I wasn't at home as much as I could have been or as considerate a father as I should have been, but I never stopped loving her - not for one moment. And I always felt close to her. We used to play records, go cycling or walking together, talk. Once we even appeared on TV together. She was my little girl. I would have done anything for her. 

Now Edie has entered her 30th year and it breaks my heart to write that I have missed most of her twenties. I have not seen her since December 2011 - more than seven years, following the terrible family rift that occurred when I split from my ex-wife. Not one day has passed since then when I have not thought of Edie and her sister, my two wonderful daughters, and what a fool I have been to find myself exiled from them.

I am enormously proud of Edie. She was always such an intelligent, studious girl, doing very well at school and earning a place at the University of Oxford, Balliol College, where she read English. Academically, Edie was so brilliant, Balliol would have accepted her to read Mathematics. Indeed, she considered changing to maths while she was there. By the time she graduated, the shutters had come down. I was excluded from her life, facing a wall of silence, an ocean of desolation.

I don't really know what's happened to her since then. My ex hasn't told me anything, and I don't even have a way of getting Christmas or birthday cards and presents to her. Edie and her sister visited my late mum on her death bed in a hospice in Oxford last April - a merciful act which I greatly appreciated. But the condition set was that I and my brothers were not present at the time. This has been going on for so long, I am beyond desperate.

Why can't Edie and I meet and talk? Since my divorce from her mother, I have never been given an opportunity to communicate with her. Not for a moment. The 21 years that I spent living in the same home as Edie appears to have counted for nothing. A lot of people would have given up hope by now, but that's not in my nature. I have two lovely, now grown-up, daughters and I want to see them. It would be good for them and good for me. It'd be great for us all to tend the wound. I would do almost anything for this to happen. I have done everything my ex has asked of me and, as expected, received nothing.

I am extremely proud to say I believe Edie is now training for The Law - to be a barrister. It is something I considered doing, and I am delighted if this is the course she has embarked on. She was always very articulate and logical, with exceptional oratorial skills - Edie will be a brilliant brief, maybe a QC of the future. Who knows? She has reverted to her original moniker, Edlyn, a name that, I have no doubt, one day very soon will be very famous in the courts. Not surprisingly, Edlyn and I have a great deal in common: a quirky sense of humour, love of life and ability to work very hard. Indeed, I think we are currently both mature postgraduate students at the same London university (although at different sites).

I know how tough it is going back to study, particularly at postgrad level. It's expensive, of course, and punishingly hard work. I do between 20 hours and more than 40 hours of study a week for my Master's, as well as working full-time, to get good grades. I am sure Edlyn is working just as hard. I would love the opportunity to see her and help her in any way I can. That is my dream!  

Monday, December 31, 2018

My 2018

It is New Year's Eve 2018 and so a natural time to look back over the year.

This year has been dominated by the death of my dear mother, Heide Wilson (nee Loblich).

Mum (pictured left at my allotment) had appeared in excellent health for most of last year.

Her diagnosis with intestinal cancer, about a year ago, was a great shock. The speed at which the disease took hold was horrifying.

She died in a hospice in Oxford on 20 April 2018 with me and my three brothers at her bedside.

Even now it is hard to write about. I could go on about her life, growing up in war-torn Germany, meeting Dad (who died three years ago), settling in England, her remarkable career in mathematics and her Catholicism.

But it is her unconditional love and great kindness I remember.

I still find it hard to believe she has gone.

It is more than 14 months since I have written a blog; the shock of her loss has something to do with that. I have just not felt like putting fingers to keyboard to write about my life; it's too raw.

I have been working - for a homelessness charity - and that has gone well.

And I've been studying for a Master's in Voluntary Sector Management at a business school in London.

When I last wrote, in Back To School, I indicated I intended to put a lot more effort into my university studies this time round than I did back in the 1980s.

I managed it. It is a tough course but I put my nose to the grindstone and gave it my all, or as close to my all as I could. Mum encouraged me.

Over the academic year, from October 2017-September 2018, I put in 1,360 hours of study - reading text books, writing assignments, attending lectures and action learning sets.

The course is very vocational and useful, covering everything from strategy, diversity and governance to resource management and managing people and quality to organisations, leadership and change, and much, much more.

Oftentimes I found it challenging but managed to get a distinction for the year and, indeed, a distinction in every assignment and exam, except one essay for which I got a merit.

I surprised myself and have decided to do the second year, starting in a couple of weeks from now, to complete the Master's.

Some of my fellow students were just as hardworking as me and even more successful.

Others took my old approach to study and put in far fewer hours. For my part, I was glad I made myself work so hard, filling 13 large notebooks, not just because of my scores, but because I learnt a lot that will help me, and is already helping me, in life.

I am sure Mum would have been proud of my efforts. When I was young I lacked the maturity for study. Now I can do it and have a taste for it.

The year otherwise has been a bit of a blur.

And since the first year of my course finished in September, I have been catching up, sorting out issues and life admin.

I have taken a few photographs during the year, some of which are featured in this blog post.

By October, I felt pretty drained. I was fortunate to be able to work for a week in Bratislava, Slovakia.

A change is as good as a rest, as they say.

Two years ago tonight, I gave up alcohol - the best decision I have ever made.

Somehow it has worked for me. I don't miss drinking at all; it made me foolish.

Yet some friends have fallen away as a result of me not drinking alcohol, others I see less often.

I have taken responsibility for my life.

There is so much to do, so much to live for. I get more done now and am generally happier.

Of course the sadness never leaves me: the sadness of losing my parents; the deep sadness of losing my niece, Emily, and the sadness and pain of losing contact with my two daughters, whom I haven't seen for seven years now.

Last night I lay awake in bed trying to think of what I could write.

There is never a day when I don't think of my daughters. There is never a day when I don't think what a fool I was to lose them. Or wish they would get in touch.

But not every problem has a solution.

Every day I write down that I will see them soon but I don't really know if I will ever see them again.

And pathetic as it may sound, I have no options; there's nothing I can do. Except hope and wait.

I love my daughters. It would fantastic if 2019 was the year in which they reached out to me.

Happy New Year!

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Back to School

It is some 33 years since I last did any academic study but, suddenly, I am a student again!

A strange feeling. From 1980-83, I was an undergraduate at the University of Hull where I was reading, or rather ignoring, Physics Studies.

A disastrous student, lazy, inattentive, uninterested, I crashed through my three years at Hull, ducking out of lectures and avoiding other contact with my tutors. It was a miracle I emerged a BSc. at all, and it was by the skin of my teeth.

I spent my time at Hull University pursuing a raft of extracurricular interests: cycling and climbing in my first year, then DJing, doing lighting for rock bands, student journalism, and, of course, drinking and seeking the company of women (not very successfully).

My undergraduate years passed in a haze, a blaze and a blur. My postgraduate year of Journalism Studies at University College, Cardiff, was not hugely different.

I tried a bit harder but could not concentrate, spent my time listening to jazz bands, dancing in reggae clubs, with all that that entailed, and drinking. I flunked my local government exam, before, eventually, getting a Postgraduate Diploma in Journalism Studies.

Now in a different epoch I am back in the corridors of academia, studying a Master's (MSc.) in Voluntary Sector Management at a prestigious University of London business school.

Since the course officially started on 6 October, I have somehow put in around 65 hours of private study - averaging more than 20 hours a week.

I'm part-time but 20-plus hours' study a week is vastly more than I ever did when I was full-time in Hull or Cardiff back in the day.

Zero hours of private study would have been close to the mark then.

Admittedly, it has not been easy. I am working full-time as well, so I study while commuting morn and night, and at lunchtime, and at weekends.

I have never written essays before or used references, critical thinking or reflective practice. I am brand new! I am trying my best but I do get tired.

My first assignment is due in on 1 November, the second on 8 November, swiftly followed by another intensive weekend of lectures on campus.

My current assignment is an historical one, set by a history don. A baptism of fire for an ancient physicist!

Monday, January 30, 2017

Mr Cheeky 2013-17 RIP

When something very bad suddenly happens, it can be very hard to cope with the resultant anxiety and fear. Then, when a second terrible thing subsequently occurs, the shock, pain and grief can be unbearable.

That is how I feel about the theft, on Sunday, 4 December 2016, and death, on Saturday, 28 January 2017, of our beloved ginger cat, Mr Cheeky.

Mr Cheeky was the most loving, charismatic, characterful and loyal cat that I have ever known. By sheer dint of personality, he ran his manor around Brunswick Street East, Hove, Sussex, with an iron paw. He knew everyone - and went everywhere. A crack in a doorway or an open window was an invitation to Mr Cheeky. He saw it as his catly duty to visit, engage with and entertain all the people in his territory - the three-and-a-half streets around our home.

There was a quiet dignity about him, an undeniable presence. Whenever I went out, strangers would come up to tell me stories about Mr Cheeky's visitations: how he had played with their small children, patiently sat in on band practices or picked up their previously timid puss to join his feline gang, prowling the streets of Brunswick. Never would they say he had come begging for food or been a nuisance.

The simple fact was Mr Cheeky loved people - and people loved Mr Cheeky. One of his many haunts was G-Whizz Cycles - an Aladdin's cave of a secondhand bicycle store - which Mr Cheeky loved to inspect on his rounds. The owner told me that Mr Cheeky had a remarkable confidence and fearlessness; he was proud of every square inch of his territory and, while always friendly and affectionate, no one could doubt that has was master of all he surveyed.

Mr Cheeky also loved other cats. He was a born leader - not a loner. He sought out like-minded felines and recruited them to Mr Cheeky's Army - for daytime fun and noctural manoevres. Most notable of his comrades was Django, a sleeky black cat who lived on the next street along with three daddies, all young musicians and graduates of the local pop music colleague, BIMM. Within days of us adopting Mr Cheeky, he became fast friends with Django. They would hang out together on street corners, go round to each other's homes for play dates - and drop into the local pub, The Bottom's Rest, where they would work the room and were greatly adored by clientele and staff alike.

When the three musicians moved out of their house and were unable to take Django with them, Mr Cheeky invited him to move in with us - and he has been happily living here ever since. Mr Cheeky and Django were in total harmony, although there was never any doubt who was top cat. Django played Sergeant Wilson to Mr Cheeky's Captain Mainwaring. Mr Cheeky would show him the way, however ill advised. And shy Django was happy to oblige, always allowing Mr Cheeky to eat first or instigate a game of chase. Whenever we went out, Mr Cheeky and Django would follow us like our shadows until, eventually, we gave them the slip on the edge of their territory.

We had got Mr Cheeky from Hove charity Lost Cats. I will never forget our first meeting. Going from cat to cat at the sanctuary, you received a mixed reception: some were painfully nervous, others bored. We were told that Arnie, as he was then known, had returned from an operation and would be tired. However, he made an enormous effort to be affectionate, and I immediately took to him. In the adjacent hutch, an identical ginger was even more enthusiastic. You could almost hear him say: "Take me home, Daddy, take me home!" Then we realised that it was the same cat who had merely nipped round the back to have a second go at enticing us. He succeeded and soon Mr Cheeky, as we renamed him, was coming home with us.

Mr Cheeky's backstory was that he had been abandoned and lived on the streets for a month or so before being handed into Lost Cats. The young Mr Cheeky was an adventurous and daring kit, anxious to explore and make his mark on the world. Indeed it took him some time for him to get used to his new territory and he did have a near-miss soon after he came to live with us. But once he had recovered, he became very streetwise on his patch, which is not busy with traffic, and really seemed to enjoy his life.

Of course, there were alarming moments, including the time he climbed more than 100ft. over a Brunswick Square house, sliding down scaffolding on the other side. Or when he entered a neighbour's house through the open upstairs window. But steady-footed and fearless, Mr Cheeky knew what he was doing.

He was a great comfort. When he first arrived, I was on gardening leave and then I spent more than a year working from home. Mr Cheeky was my constant companion. When he had been out for a patrol, he would stop at my desk upon his return - to give me a detailed update of what he had been doing, what was going on. It really was as if he was briefing me. And if I took a power-nap or siesta, Mr Cheeky would join me, often putting his head on the pillow and stretching out like a human. As my girlfriend Laura King has explained in her account of Mr Cheeky's life,  he loved to cuddle up.

When he disappeared in December last year, it was very worrying. Mr Cheeky had been sleeping on his favourite chair in our living room. It was the end of the evening and we were just about to close the cat flap. A few days on, it came out that Mr Cheeky had been stolen by a young couple - the theft had been recorded on the CCTV camera of the neighbour who lived opposite. Trusting and friendly as always, Mr Cheeky had been caught and, although he struggled to free himself, the evil couple took him away. Although we didn't know it at the time, by snatching him those scumbags had signed his death warrant.

Laura and I did everything in our power to publicise the case - to try to get him back. There was a lot of publicity, including on regional ITV and in Mail Online and The Sun online. For a day, Mr Cheeky was the most famous cat in the world, even appearing on a breaking world news website and an American news site. The media were on the whole extremely professional, although I was staggered by an Italian reporter from Brighton's fairly amateurish Latest TV who asked if the people who had snatched Mr Cheeky were not rescuing him (although, to be fair, the news editor, having viewed the tape, later phoned me to apologise for his reporter's misconduct).

But when the blaze of publicity failed to yield immediate results, lazy Sussex Police reacted by immediately closing the case. In truth, they had never attempted to investigate the crime or had any intention of doing so. To describe the call centre-based civilian assigned to us as an "investigator" is beyond a joke. The investigative skills of a baked bean were on display. These days, it appears, policing is all about doing it yourself.

We trudged on without any help from the police, searching for Mr Cheeky, putting up posters, handing out flyers and following up any leads that came our way. But it seemed there were a lot of ginger cats out there - and none of the tips produced Mr Cheeky.

As the weeks turned into months, I felt despondent. I wondered if Mr Cheeky was still in the country. I was mystified as to why the £300 we had offered had failed to generate a single hot lead. The CCTV footage had proved too poor to get a decent-quality screen grab of his abductors, but surely someone knew something about the crime?

Then - seven weeks and five-and-a-half days after he was stolen - came the terrible call.

Mr Cheeky had been found in Cromwell Road, less than a mile from home. Dead.

He had been run down by a motor vehicle, and, we believe, killed instantly.

Was Mr Cheeky trying to escape his captors? Had he panicked and run? We still don't know. He was killed trying to cross Cromwell Road at around 11am on Saturday (28 January 2017). He was so close to home, yet so very, very far.

A kindly passer-by took his crushed body to the nearest veterinary surgery, Wilbury Vets, who checked his micro-chipping, found it was Mr Cheeky, and called Laura.

We went to the scene of the crime, next to 100 Cromwell Road. It has been a hit-and-run driver. We talked to some locals who thought Mr Cheeky may have been living in one of the houses around there - big, bedsit-land abodes occupied by the peripatetic and anti-social. Laura told our Sussex Police "investigator" who true to form suggested that we investigate - more DIY complacent Sussex policing.

Today, devastated, we picked up Mr Cheeky's little body from the vets. They were very kind. Looking at Mr Cheeky's face, there was a grim determination, captured from the moment he died. He was trying to get away, but it was not to be. His trusting, daring nature had been his undoing in a world not as pure as his. A world sprinkled with evil people.

We took him home. Over the past seven weeks, I have often wondered if Mr Cheeky would return home. But I never imagined the terrible sadness that would accompany him.

We put him, shrouded in the blanket from the vets, on his favourite chair - the one he had sleeping on during that fateful night of his abduction - and lit some candles and incense and placed beside him the flowers kindly brought by our neighbours.

His friend, Django, came in. Django slowly walked up and put his nose near Mr Cheeky's. Joy turned to sadness and fear as the truth dawned: his companion was back but was gone. Ever so gently, Django walked backwards and sat in the hall, his fur standing on end, looking at his friend for the last time and saying: "Goodbye, old chum."

After an hour, we took Mr Cheeky to his final resting place where he was buried deep in the Sussex soil with my grandfather's Russian spade. Mr Cheeky was interred in his blanket and a Jump The Gun cloth bag, with full Mod honours.

We are going to plant a flower bed on his grave - the sort of display he would have loved to bask in.

 As we laid him to rest, I read:

We have entrusted our brother Mr Cheeky to God's mercy,
and we now commit his body to the ground:
earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust:
in sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life
through our Lord Jesus Christ,
who will transform our frail bodies
that they may be conformed to his glorious body,
who died, was buried, and rose again for us.
To him be glory for ever. 

My voice was cracking and tears were steaming down my cheeks.

It is hard to credit the bad luck that befell the innocent, lovely Mr Cheeky. To be stolen. To be taken from those he loved most. To be mown down in his prime.

Mr Cheeky led a good life and I believe that for the years he was with us, it was a happy one. He was a little being with a big heart who has died far too young. His presence and spirit lives on and we will never forget him.

Mr Cheeky 2013-17 REST IN PEACE

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Monday, September 07, 2015

Memories of Dad: Walter Robin Balmer Wilson 1932 - 2015

Two weeks ago, on Tuesday, 25 August 2015, the funeral of my father, Robin Wilson, took place at the Oratory Church of St Aloysius, Oxford, followed by burial at St Michael's Churchyard, Cumnor. Dad had died on Thursday, 13 August, aged 82.

Looking back on his life, I am struck by his great gentleness and kindness. He was a loving father, a quiet and scholarly man who enjoyed being at home with his family. He relaxed by reading about history, language and religion, making copious notes in his beautiful handwriting. He also loved working in the vegetable garden, growing food for our dinners.

My early memories of Dad are from when we lived in Aylesbury and then in Oxfordshire in the mid to late-1960s. I remember the excitement of receiving a big tricycle that he and Mum gave me one Christmas in Aylesbury - and my grandfather - Dad's Dad - visiting and giving me a helpful push on it.

When we moved to Cumnor in Oxfordshire in the late 1960s, I recall the time Dad spent with me and my brothers in the garden. When I obtained my first camera, a Kodak Instamatic, he was very happy to pose for me. I recall him, showing me his vegetable plot and pulling out a huge carrot destined for Mum's delicious winter stew.

Dad taught me how to use a bow and arrow - the arrows had a rubber suction pad at their end to limit the damage they could do. He also erected a little round, metal-sided swimming pool to splash around in. We were in heaven! I would shoot arrows at it which would stick on the side.

We also played in a tiny tent which he had erected for us, and Dad took my elder brother and me blackberrying on our bicycles. One night we rode back as the sun was setting, our bags bulging with berries. I can rarely recall a happier day.

Dad had an interesting background. His father had worked as an oil company executive while embarking on his own enterprises, buying a petrol station and dreaming of launching a greyhound track in Chester, to my grandmother's horror.

Dad was quite different - studious rather than entrepreneurial, working hard at Worcester Grammar School and being offered a place to read history at St Edmund Hall, Oxford, a.k.a. Teddy Hall.

By all accounts he was a very serious young man with a great interest in Roman Catholicism to which he had converted from Anglicanism.

He found he had a vocation to the priesthood, and, rather than taking his place at Teddy Hall, began his Oxford studies instead at the Jesuit college, Campion Hall, where he read Classics.

The direction of his life changed again after he started corresponding with a girl he had met on a train in Germany. It led to romance and a decision to marry rather than enter formation for the Catholic priesthood.

After graduating from Oxford University, Dad had to do national service in Germany. With the passing years, his time in The Army was viewed through rose-tinted glasses.

Although I am assured he was not at all keen on the military life at the time, afterwards he liked to talk with enthusiasm about his service as a general's chauffeur, and particularly the stark contrast between his dignified and sober boss and a hard-drinking, boisterous American general who was the life and soul of the party whenever he rolled up in his Jeep.

My parents married in my mother's home town, Bremen, in northern Germany, and he and Mum moved to Derby where he embarked on a career with British Gas.

He started as a management trainee, a role he said came with a company bicycle, which, at first as least, he kept in their bedroom - to ensure it remained pristine.

Dad became a commercial sales manager, working in gas board jobs in Scunthorpe, where I was born, Aylesbury, Oxford and Poole in Dorset.

In Poole, he would shift his working day forward in the summer months to try to come home early to take us to the glorious beach at Sandbanks in the family motor, a formidable Morris Oxford.

We enjoyed many happy times at the beach, jumping the waves, crashing through the white water, and having sprints along the sands. Although not as tall as his sons, Dad had a real turn of speed over 100 yards.

I have vivid memories of life with him in Broadstone, Poole.

Looking back, he was a remarkably tolerant father in many ways, although his natural cautiousness, particularly about road safety, meant we were strongly discouraged from riding bicycles on the roads until we were in the sixth form.

In his own way he always tried his best for us.

When I failed my 11+ exam and was sent to Poole's secondary modern school, I was very unhappy. He and Mum moved heaven and earth to help get me transferred after one just term to Poole Grammar School. When we received notification of my transfer, a riotous night of celebration and barley wine drinking ensued at our home in Charborough Road.

Dad had his own philosophy. He did not generally believe in over-exerting himself. His words of wisdom to us included: "Burst not thy boiler!", "Throttle right back", and "I do what I can, I can no more."

However, at times he worked incredibly hard, on projects such as digging a very deep trench in the front garden to try to divert an underground stream which had been flooding my bedroom (our house was built on the side of a steep hill) and converting, decorating and insulating our new house when he and Mum moved from Poole back to Oxfordshire.

He was a proud grandfather and was delighted when his first granddaughter was born in 1990.

When she was a toddler, he would her horsey rides on his back. And he also loved his four other granddaughters.

There was a serious side to Dad but also a fun and mischievous side. He enjoyed a good gossip about politics and was not averse to stirring things up a bit.

For years he was nicknamed "Gwalt" - from Gwalterus, the Latin for his first name Walter, which we had espied on his graduation certificate - and, somehow, the name became synonymous with naughtiness.

Sometimes, he would march far ahead of us in the street in Oxford, gradually disappearing from sight, or join a passing religious procession, vanishing into a college chapel for Evensong!

For his amusement, he compiled his own Anglo-Saxon dictionary, free of words of Latin and Greek derivation, and some of them his vocabulary. Sometimes he would correct me when I said "telephone" or "horizon", substituting his preferred words "farspeaker" and "skyline"!

He loved to watch his granddaughters playing when they were little.

 One of my favourite photographs is of Dad and his granddaughter Emily on playground swings.

Life with Dad was full of surprises. He did not like travelling through London, even on public transport, so once when we embarked on our annual holiday, he hired a couple of Jaguar limousines to bypass the Metropolis.

On the other hand, journeys in the Morris Oxford could be very long and demanding.

The joy of seeing the sea at Weymouth after a seemingly interminable drive from Oxford was immense.

And, later, on trips from Poole to Oxford, we were offered a round of ice creams for every minute the Morris Oxford brought us late to the 9.30am mass at Blackfriars.

So many ice creams were won by me and my brothers; most of them, of course, never materialised!

On motorway, 50mph was considered a great velocity in the Morris Oxford. Generally, 'A' roads were preferred.

Dad could be anxious, especially when we were learning to drive, but there was a more general peacefulness about him.

He loved the outdoors, whether among his apple trees, playing garden cricket or going the dreaded Sunday "run in the Cotswolds" - a lengthy car excursion.

I regret that during periods of my life I did not see as much of him as I might have done, although in recent years I have visited a lot.

His disease, Alzheimer's, was very gradual at first, but became much more severe in recent years and, particularly, this year at Freeland House, Oxfordshire, where the carers and nursing staff were wonderful.

Dad was a regular at Blackfriars, Oxford, for decades. He and mum had attended their 9.30am mass from the days when Geoffrey Preston OP and Malcolm McMahon OP were part of the community there.

Dad also enjoyed the tradition of the Oxford Oratory, St Aloysius Gonzaga, with his Latin mass.

So, in a way it was fortuitous that a ceiling issue had put Blackfriars' church out of action, so the Prior John O'Connor celebrating Dad's Requiem Mass instead up the road at St Aloysius.

He would have loved the hymns, favourites such as Praise to the Lord, the Almighty, the King of Creation, and Tell Out My Soul, the Greatness of the Lord, and the stirring organ music.

Dad loved playing the organ and was such a fan of J S Bach (1685 - 1750) that he has taken Johann Sebastian as baptism names when he entered the Roman Catholic faith.

Fr. John spoke very well about Dad, taking our stories about him and perfectly capturing his unusual amalgam of gentleness, faith, eccentricity and humour.

Dad would often leave a church service with the jaunty remark: "A useful little mass!"

This was his final mass. Afterwards, the funeral cortege drove up to Cumnor where he was laid to rest beside the village church, St. Michael's, as the heavens wept.

It is hard to get used to life without him. It feels there is a big void. We are left with happy memories and golden photographs of Dad, some of which I share here.

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Monday, February 02, 2015

Seventh Heaven

'And life is like a pipe,
'And I'm a tiny penny rolling up the walls inside.'
Amy Winehouse

The Seventh Birthday celebrations at Lewes Poetry went very well.

Our promotional efforts paid off. The upstairs room at the Lewes Arms was almost full. The atmosphere was great, and everyone appeared to really enjoy the evening.

I guess the club has evolved a fair amount since 2008.

I recall the first night was not a huge artistic success. I rambled on too much as compere and the headline act, although competent, proved a liability after the show, making himself a nuisance with any apparently single women in the bar (they all had too much sense to fall for his long-haired charms).

In subsequent months and years, there were great nights - and some lacklustre ones. But the club's raison etre of bringing together performance poets with the so-called page poets has never changed. Neither has its slightly anarchic, comedic feel, which harks back to my eight-and-a-half year running London's wildest comedy club, Joe's Comedy Madhouse.

In recent years, the club reached a lowpoint in November 2011, when there were so few poets and audience members that one of the performers filled out the running order with famous figures from past and present: Dostoevsky, Fiona Shaw, Joni Mitchell, Lord Byron, Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath, Johnny Rotten, Van Morrison, Madonna, Dame Edna Everage, Winston Churchill.

At least that made me smile.

Ten readers performed at the Seventh Birthday Show last Thursday (29 January 2015).

Among them were Kit Hardy (pictured at the top of this posting with her little dog who loved the birthday cake), Colin Bell (aka Wolfie Wolfgang, pictured above) and Robin Houghton (pictured left), now an accomplished published poet who read for the first time at the club.

Over the years, we have shed a few page poets.

Two in particular did not like the humorous side of the club or find it an appropriate stage for their Roman epic or elegiac couplet-inspired work.

Which is fine. Poetry readers can be pretty starchy affairs and that suits some people down to the ground.

But whether the muse is Ovid or John Cooper Clarke or someone completely unknown, all receive a kindly and supportive hearing at Lewes Poetry.

One thing that has always surprised me is how seriously the audience takes the limerick contest.

I even dropped the contest at one point, at the request of the earnest poets, but reintroduced by popular demand after they stopped coming.

Although the prize is deliberately hardly worth winning, a hush descends during the interval as almost the entire audience puts their minds to limerick creation.

This year I am planning another five gigs, all on Thursday nights: 19 March, 21 May (when Rachel Pantechnicon is headlining), 23 July, 24 September and 22 October.

See you there!

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Monday, December 01, 2014

Coventry Evening Telegraph Reunion 2014

Stop your messing around, 
Better think of your future, 
Time you straighten right out, 
Creating problems in town.  

The Specials

A few weeks back I attended a reunion of reporters from the Coventry Evening Telegraph where I had worked from 1986-88, initially as a news reporter and then, largely, as the pop columnist.

The last time I had been to a Coventry Evening Telegraph reunion was in 1989, when I had moved down to Fleet Street to work for the pop desk of the Daily Star (for a Coventry reporter, Annette Witheridge).

At that do, held at a curry house near The Strand, I enjoyed an amusing evening with Jon Steafel (now Deputy Editor of the Daily Mail), Mary Frances (who I believe went to edit a national women's magazine), her partner Dave Harding (also ex-CET) and a whole host of other former Coventry Evening Telegraph hacks whose identities are lost in the mists of time.

The 2014 reunion was of a slightly different generation: old friends Tracey Harrison, Alison Brace, Jayne Cole, Alastair Law, Adrian Lee, Roland Watson, Pete Walsh among others - and their partners.

I don't think I had seen Tracey since I left the Sunday Telegraph in 1997 (she was also working at Canary Wharf at the time, for Morgan at the Daily Mirror) and it was amazing to see her again.

Jayne Cole - who is long married to Pete Walsh - and I had not met since I left Coventry 1988, which is a hell of a long time.

She was a dazzling young photographer on the paper when I knew her. It was great to see her again and to talk.

Jayne had shared a house in Foleshill, Coventry, with Lorna Duckworth, now in Scotland (and not present at the reunion), a street away from the horrible hovel in which I lived with my young and very tolerant cat Tonto.

Alison Brace was also at the reunion.

I'd known Alison from when she did work experience at the Hull Daily Mail in 1985 (I believe) -  incredibly to me almost 30 years ago.

She joined the Coventry Evening Telegraph after I had left but I bumped into her again in the late 1990s at the Mail on Sunday, a watering hole for hacks in need of work from all over Fleet Street.

One of the characteristics of my youth is that I remember so little about it.

When I meet people from my yesteryears, they nearly always tell me things of which I have absolutely no recollection!

Sometimes I wonder if it was really the same guy. Or if I am inhabiting someone else's body.

The 2014 reunion was a very jolly event in a smart Indian restaurant in Covent Garden, London.

It was very good to see James Hardy again. He was not at the Coventry Evening Telegraph but is married to Tracey Harrison.

I recall that James and I suffered together under Lawson at the Sunday Telegraph, although, to be fair, he coped far better with the regime than I did.

It was good to see Alastair Law, who became pop columnist of the CET after I left, and Roland Watson (now Foreign Editor of The Times), who came after me to Coventry but I had met before on the Fleet Street merry-go-round.

It was a very pleasant evening and made me think of some of the people I had known from the Coventry Evening Telegraph days who were not there:

My dear friend Jason Tilley, a brilliant photographer, with whom I have kept in touch over the years.

This picture of Jason is one I snatched with his Nikon FM work camera which he had left lying around in a Coventry pub beer garden while he procured some Guinness.

Newspaper pictures were in black and white in those glorious days, and few could print monochrome as well as Jason.

Then there was the aforementioned Lorna Duckworth, a great friend with whom I have fallen out of touch and, sadly, have not heard from for years.

And Demetrios Mathieu - "Saviour of Us People" as I used to call him - who was not there, according to Pete, because it was raining. I feel sure there was more to it than that!

Nick Holdsworth, a remarkably direct individual, who has defected to Russia. I won't say what I called him in the Coventry days.

Jerry Vine, a.k.a. Radio Two presenter and BBC election coverage star Jeremy Vine, who used to write reviews and pop interview pieces for my pop column (he did it extremely well and was also a brilliant mimic and all-round good egg).

Ray Massey (Motoring Editor at the Daily Mail) who used to write the Peeping Tom gossip column at the Coventry Evening Telegraph.

I thought of Melanie Knight, another very good friend who used to sit opposite me in the newsroom.
Melanie, a very good tennis player from Lewes, shared a house with Tracey Harrison (in Hugh Road, Stoke, Coventry, I think).

I used to drop round there particularly during a lengthy period of homelessness one summer, when I was crashing on friends' floors or sleeping in my beloved white Fiat Uno. Very convenient for work it was.

I still occasionally hear from Melanie, who still lives near Coventry, in Kenilworth, but I guess I have not seen her for more than 20 years.

And Ant "Tony" Walton, a real character and mate in those days, who was mysteriously "let go" by the Coventry Evening Telegraph and now works as Night News Editor of the Daily Star.

I pictured Ant - or Tony as he is now known - returning to the CET building one night to give the drinks machine a good old kick for the camera! I have to admit I let him in. That evening, I recall, ended up with us having a smoke while sitting on the Coventry city centre ring road!

My time in Coventry was kind of strange.

I was young - 24 to 26 - during my time there and immature, and there was a lot of messing around, as my friends The Specials might have said.

Looking back, I did not take life at all seriously, drank a hell of a lot, talked too much and generally made a complete fool of myself.

I was constantly in trouble. At times my news reporting was distinctly suspect. After a few late starts (one 2pm instead of early calls at 8am) and a couple of dreadful mistakes, I was offered the pop column where, I suspect, the Editor, Geoff Elliot, thought I could do less damage.

Although in Hull I had known The Housemartins, I was not particularly au fait with popular music at that time.

Nonetheless, I accepted the job of a writing a thrice-weekly pop column and went into it with some verve.

At that time I did not own a record player, so for at least a few weeks, I wrote all the record reviews on the basis of what I thought of the album or single covers.

Eventually I invested a few pounds in a mono Fidelity record player from a secondhand shop and started listening to the records and going to see bands.

My lifestyle changed.

I would go out to a gig most nights of the week, either driving to the NEC, Birmingham or Leicester in the Fiat Uno, or walking or taking a train to somewhere closer and making a prettty boozy time of it.

During the day I would interview rising pop stars on the telephone and try to persuade local musicians to make themselves famous, as The Specials and The Selecter had done some years before in the Two Tone era.

Often I ended up in terrible dives getting dreadfully wasted.

Going out to the gigs - large and small - was great fun and I got to know some interesting people such as The Specials' Lynval Golding - a lovely man - and the band he then managed, After Tonite.

Lynval's nephew Brian, the sax player, became a friend. We would spend a good deal of time on the razz in the public houses of Coventry and Leamington Spa.

I had such confidence in those days. To mark my 26th birthday, I put on five acts at a club in the city centre (under the guise of Christmas Party for my pop column).

Later, I promoted a fairly large gig to raise money for the anti-apartheid movement.

I was evicted from my rented room at gunpoint, got doused in beer by an aggrieved band, was threatened by The Macc Lads, and interviewed the Godfather of Soul James Brown, backstage at the NEC with Jason Tilley's help, shortly before he [Mr Brown, Jason!] was jailed.

However, way and by far the biggest thing to happen in Coventry during my time there had nothing to do with music.

When Coventry City Football Club - the Sky Blues - won the FA Cup in 1987, it seemed like greatest moment of my life. I believe everyone in Coventry felt the same way.

Words cannot recall describe the collective joy that the people of Coventry and the surrounding area felt at that moment.

Remarkably, you could see it coming.

From the quarter-final stage, I was totally convinced Coventry would win and even successfully predicted the winning score for the final.

I just wish I had put my wages on it!

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