Ever been to south west London

…the riverbanks, avenues and playing fields, beat clubs and bars and clothes shops that were the architecture of my first twenty or so years; the first three in Manchester notwithstanding. An adolescence upon a  stretch of Thames that winds south and west from gentrified Brentford to Teddington, the television studios and the limit of tidal Thames. Passing the London Apprentice at Isleworth and the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew and Syon Park and on to the treeless expanse of Old Deer Park and another bend in the river. My father was fond of this stretch of the verdant towpath in the shadow of Twickenham Bridge, no more than a couple of hundred yards. No pubs or shops, just the kind of homes we aspired to and the five green iron arches of the lock and weir. It was nearly always dark when we arrived, passing brash clusters of evening newspaper billboards, dozens of them, tied to the garden fences on every corner fanning out from Twickenham Rugby Ground. We’d step out of our grey Austin Cambridge with its red leather upholstery into the chilly Thames air dimly lit by Gothic electric lanterns on the road bridge. In the far distance Richmond Athletic Club on the eastern edge of flat and mostly treeless park. Rebadged the Crawdaddy it’s where one misty winter night I caught a bus from Ealing to watch Peter Green and Fleetwood Mac at the height of the late sixties blues revival. Long hair, rugby shirts and leather jackets essential kit. An Easter fun fair still sets out its coconuts and dodgems and helter skelter on the strip of land between the A316 and the railway linking the south west with Waterloo. This strip of arterial road a blaze of pink and white cherry blossom every spring.

From here the still tidal river ebbs and flows beneath the 18th century Richmond Bridge where years ago, starboard side, there stood an ice rink popular with teenagers aiming to make out on Saturday night and the first place I was punched unconscious. On the bright side spinning hopelessly on the ice worked well as a babe(s) magnet. The Odeon cinema stands central atop the bridge on the Surrey high street side facing St.Margarets where The Beatles shot that memorable four front door scene at the start of Help. Next to the cinema the sixties hippie hang out L’Auberge and next to that the greatest menswear shop in London, J.Simons, a shrine to mod casual wear, presently ‘up west’ in Marylebone. I  still wear the triple welt brogues owner John Simons sold me nearly over 30 years ago. 

During my winter as a minicab driver I’d park my white Vauxhall Victor close to the house once lived in by Keith Richards, up Richmond Hill and along from The Star and Garter Hotel, once a war veterans retirement home a stone’s throw from a Poppy Factory today transformed in modern times into smart apartments. From up here you can watch airliners make their descent across Hounslow to Heathrow and follow the river between Ham Fields and Marble Hill Park to Eel Pie Island. Nearby is the entrance to Richmond Park that bucolic deer trodden manicured wilderness linking Richmond with Kingston, Roehampton and Barnes. Turn east through the gates and you can clearly see the capital some 15 miles away; the London Eye on Southbank and the BT Tower close to my former home at Mornington Crescent. 

Neither London nor the countryside, this is the epicentre of the much maligned suburbs at its most verdant. An urban soundtrack of sirens, aircraft and airbrakes with a rural palette. Avenues of London 30s semi detached homes with leaded lights and manicured front gardens. Plane trees with  blotchy trunks and parks of hawthorn, silver maple, oak, and horse chestnut. Bushy Park, Richmond Green, Barnes Common close to where Marc Bolan met his end (there are bunches of flowers left there to this day), Twickenham Green, Kew Green, Orleans Gardens, Crane Park, and Radnor Gardens, 

Our journey passes the the Slug & Lettuce where drinkers dangle their feet above the water on the embankment near Richmond Bridge, although my choice of watering hole was The Waterman’s Arms a short ways up Water Lane towards the hight street. Gentrified and foodie now and no bigger than a front room it was the roughest pub in town then. There are rowing boats for hire close to the bridge and  swans. Further on the river turns west where steel hawsers support a black walnut tree thought to be over 200 years old. Nearby The Crown, a Youngs pub and my local for three or four years where I was attacked for being Jewish; something to do with black hair and big hooter. Petersham Fields on our left and on the right, close to the ferry slipway, The White Swan, known to us as ‘the pig pub’ due to the sheer quantity of its porcine photographs. And finally ‘Twickers’ and Eel Pie Island the hotel that burned to the ground some years ago,  once the location of another rock venue boasting a residency by The Rolling Stones. Manfred Mann, The Yardbirds, and Long John Baldrey with a young Rod Stewart on backing vocals trod those boards. My mate’s band PC Kent played the Eel Pie Island Hotel too less acclaim. 

The open air Twickenham Baths is where I developed a appetite for pretty young things, hot Bovril and Wagon Wheels. Pete Townsend lived in a tall clapperboard house nearby and during summer lunchtime sessions at the Barmy Arms we’d listen to Keith Moon bashing the skins in the back garden.  The Barmy Arms was originally named The Queens Head but renamed following a refit upon which the sign was put back upside down

Through a gate and behind a tall wall and close to a small pedestrian bridge is York House Gardens and a water fountain of white horses and eight life size naked nymphs in various degrees of ecstasy.  Oceanides from Greek mythology brought to Twickenham by a subsequently disgraced financier in 1904. 

My mother lived a few yards away, just far enough to spare her stilettos from the tidal flood waters that wash these cobbled streets to this day. Her ashes spread upon the river from the slipway there. Her funeral was in the Mortlake Crematorium some miles away coincidentally where a service was held for Trevor Bayliss OBE who lived on Eel Pie Island and where I interviewed him for The Sunday Times about the wind-up radio he’d invented with isolated communities in remote parts of sub-Saharan Africa at the forefront of his mind. I liked him and liked him even more when he was awarded the title 2010 Pipe Smoker Of The Year. I often think about the island and the narrow footbridge connecting it with the town and The Balmy Arms where I throw back a large JD every February in remembrance of mum. She wasn’t much of a drinker and would probably prefer if I downed  Danish pastries instead. 

Stately homes abound. Syon House and Marble Hill House and Petersham House, Orleans House and York House and other fine homes long gone. Among them Popes Grotto built in the early 18th century when Twickenham was a bit of tourist destination. Owner Alexander Pope built a tunnel to it beneath a road and in so doing created a grotto decorated with stalactites, crystals, marbe and Cornish diamonds. Some of the grotto remains beneath the school that stands there today. Popesgrove was our telephone prefix.

For all the good it did me I took judo classes at St.Mary’s University and a little further on at Teddington, around and about the toy shop on the bridge that for a sixpence operated a small shop window minature railway, my driving test. I made the hash of the hill start blaming it on the slippery leaves on the road. 

There are a lot of leaves around here, and a lot to think about too. 

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Passenger On Board

The first four hours are the toughest. Traffic from the West End to, well, wherever? People, hordes of them, with one aim – to escape, to get to the pub, to see the kids, to watch television, to kiss the wife. And him at the centre of it. The driver. The enabler. A working night beginning when their working days are ending. A race he’ll never win is on.

It’s slow. That’s the nature of rush-hour. A febrile, anxious, fretful world of hurried slowness, culminating in the final puffy eyed ready-for-bed hours at the end of a shift as another dawn infuses the verdant stillness of south west London with an iridescent glow. Even then, after seven hours behind the wheel and umpteen espressos, he can do Richmond to Kings Cross in 40 minutes, without thinking, probably without opening his eyes? Heathrow even quicker, unless Al Qaida has been active and the army is on the perimeter.  It was the IRA in the 70s said Maxie. It could take hour, maybe more then; passengers threatening legal action if their flights were missed. In the first four hours of the night shift, the five thirty to nine thirty Wacky Races, it can take twice that nowadays.  It’s insane. He dreams of tail lights. Yet no matter how hard he pressed the accelerator in the car or in his dreams he never got any closer, to anywhere. That’s the taxi driver syndrome he was fond of saying to nobody but himself. Like trousers smudged with chocolate and aching clutch ankle. A real ‘nowhere man’. Some tune that. His dad had played it every Sunday while carving the roast. The next car will be an automatic, something he can tailgate in for hundreds of miles with a hand free for a drink. It improves around ten, before the theatre curtains came down and the pubs and bars tip out. Time to catch a breath after the long haul tide of two million people going, just going. What was that Carol King tune?  Time to snatch a coffee and a smoke before the wide eyed dizzy out-of-their-heads club crowd return to reality. 

Michael Marshall, Micky to everyone except his mother, didn’t like his job but he liked the independence. He liked being awake while the world slept. He worked nights and enjoyed his own company.

“Rayburn 43, clear. Rayburn 43 to control, clear I repeat clear  – over.” 

He wiped the dashboard with his handkerchief and switched on the evening news. It was already dark, the time of year when the long umber lull of autumn gives way to endless dark. Chilly too. He sorted the loose change out on the passenger seat and turned on the GPS. A woman spoke with a voice like the one at his bank or was it the phone company? Maybe it was the same voice, the one that said she didn’t catch that and could he say it another way? She said hello and asked him to tap in the destination. “Coming Suzie,” he said checking his quiff in the rear view mirror and laughing at his own banality. Could use a dash more gel he surmised as he spat on his hands and ran them across his head. 

“OK Rayburn 43, I know your there,” said a voice distorted with the sound of chewing. “Don’t get all pushy. There’s a lot going going and roadworks on the 316 aren’t helping. Wait your turn. Over.” He reached below the seat, adjusted the squelch and increased the volume. The voice was clearer then handing out jobs to other drivers.

‘That’s 32 Grange Park Rayburn 36 – outward and return. Over. Confirm 18. Over.” 

It’s one way traffic on the RT. He could hear control, a south London accent without the humour of a Cockney. Featureless and flat. London without extended vowels. 

“Thank you Rayburn 18, you will wait.” He’s eating again. “ The client has agreed a price. Over.” Silence.

“Then wait around the corner where the nasty warden can’t bother you. Over.” Silence.

“You too 32, leave the onions. Over.” 

They were discussing dinner. He looked in the mirror again, tilting his face to one side. A pallid  reflection, the look of a man who hasn’t seen more than a handful of daylight hours in a week. A 747 on a path into Heathrow, its tail lights blinking in the deepening twilight. Ham Fields below, the lambent Thames twisting west past Eel Pie Island towards Teddington and tide’s end. It’s a wait he looked forward to. Watching the river and listening to control, a man called Harold with a comb over and a dislike of young people. A barathea blazer with brass buttons, food stains and two metal badges; regimental? Who knows? Sat in a green leather swivel chair behind a smudged glass screen with a flask of tea. He could see him there now picking his nose and wiping his finger under the desk. Bursts of activity followed by a brooding silence. He doesn’t know how many drivers there are? Maybe twenty, more during rush hour. And though the night a dozen maybe; loners like him; malcontents;  men without families; men like 32, real name Maxie, and, Eric, dour and teacherly, control’s nearest and dearests. That pair get the jobs that pay the best, always clear of rush hour and late night long hauls. He’d listen to Harold cajole and pamper them. For his favourites the sweet runs, over and done in half an hour. Traffic tips and gossip, and always what they’re going to eat next in the nine o’clock lull, the late night snack, and breakfast. Do they drive for food? Then there’s 15, Jake, a thick necked Australian with mean streak and a nose that looks like it’s been stolen from a cartoon rabbit. Deeply tanned inside suits that shine and fit like cling film. Jake doesn’t like anyone. He doesn’t talk to anyone. He just drives.

“Rayburn 18. Rayburn 18 over.” Silence.

“Rayburn 18. 12 Popes Grotto for Putney Bridge. Name of Patterson. I think you know the score, over.” Silence.

“In a moment Rayburn 19. The same for you Rayburn 27. That sort of language isn’t going to do you any favours Rayburn 27, over.” Silence.

“Rayburn 19. Correct. Mrs Patterson. She asked for you. The smart one with the gold rimmed glasses and tie. You get the prize for driver of the month, over.” Silence.

“You too Rayburn 32. You can share it with Rayburn 19. Now both of you, on your ways. Next time I hear from you 32 it’ll be to say you’re DoB. Over.” Silence. 

That’s nice, dinner on board. How about a bit of work on board?

“43, you still there, over?’

At last. “A little trip out to the airport. An account job with the name of Jeffries, Lincoln Avenue. Near Crane Park. Terminal 1. Over.”

Been fine if there’d been a return, but he doubted it. Up and running at last. Across Richmond Bridge to St.Margarets , Marble Hill Park and Twickenham. Past the Green, up The Meadway to Lincoln Road. Nothing exceptional. A world of paved over front gardens and PVC windows. Dull, monotonous and half a million.

“Affirmative Rayburn 43. Call when PoB. Over”

Jeffries was looking out the window as he pulled up. In his forties with an anorak over a suit. He kissed a women and then knelt down. Maybe a pet or a child? Maybe a brief case. The middle ranking executive type that’s all expenses and poor salary. When he finally emerged he had a suitcase. Terminal 1, flying intercontinental. A cut above the average. A tipper, maybe? Micky stepped out of the car and flipped the boot while Jeffries settled into the back. 

“Rayburn 43 PoB. Over.”

Whitton, Hounslow West, industrial estates and two story homes with roof extensions. The Skyline Hotel and into the Tunnel. He’d done this run fifty, sixty, maybe more times and didn’t need to think, watching the thin band of orange on the horizon dissolve into black. Then BANG! A motorcycle overtaking on the wrong side of Hanwell railway bridge making the sort of noise the Citroen made that time he hit a speed hump and the exhaust had snapped. The biker was upright. His arms at shoulder height and the tips of a long beard wrapped around his neck. BANG again, then pause and another BANG, even louder. Was that legal?

“My god,” said the fare. “I was nodding off until that thing.”

“”Me too,” replied Micky. “No, only joking.” It’s not good to banter with clients, especially account ones. It always found a way back to the Major.  

What do you know, no tip. Must have been that quip about nodding off? 

“We live in a contactless world of plastic,” Jeffries said, with a weak, thin, apologetic smile.

“Roger that sir. Not a problem. All discretionary.” Adding, “have a great flight.”

Moments later he was  following a convoy of Ubers through the airport tunnel. Another passed him on the inside. An E-Class with tinted windows. That’ll be him in six months. Albert Cars couldn’t compete with Uber. Who could? It’s only old school clients and long term customers slow or resistant to adapt to the apps revolution that were keeping Albert Cars afloat. He’d refused to ride in an Uber until the tube he and Penny were on ground to a standstill on their way to the cinema. Penny had punched something into her phone and within what had seemed like no time at all a five series Beemer had pulled up opposite Putney underground station with a dolorous Ukrainian behind the wheel. No money changed hands and Penny said the fare was half of what Micky would have charged. It’s a different world and it was getting more different by the hour. He felt the stubble on his chin and freed a piece of kebab lodged in the corner of his mouth. The traffic was lighter against the rush hour torrent flowing west. 

“Rayburn 43 pickup 12 Dene Court Mansions for Kings Cross. You read? Over.”

He knew the address. It’s a woman who wears a lot of perfume and talked on her mobile the whole time. Her name was Harper, Claudine Harper, and he liked her. She was in the lobby when he arrived, drop dead gorgeous, bathed in a camel coat and cream scarf. Could be a Burberry judging by the check pattern. She smiled and slipped onto the backseat like a feather blown in on a silent breeze. He could have watched her do that all night. They exchanged greetings and for the umpteenth time he felt, well, if you really want to know, a bit special. Micky was her driver.  She’d said as much and they travelled all over London – and often. Been awhile though. She’d been away she said, “family business”. Back now and said she was looking forward to getting back to work, “with my favourite car service.”  He felt himself redden as he placed her Louis Vuitton spinner in the boot. She was wearing that perfume again. Sweet, with a hint of some dry and exotic spice. “Cabochard,” she’d said, with surprise the time he’d mentioned it. He liked to savour it the way he’d been taught to enjoy wine; slowly, internally, long after the passing. It’s from the 30s and not so fashionable now she’d told him in an offhand way as though she’d been asked many times. Her aunt bought it for her, adding, with a hint of intimacy and puckering her cabernet lips, “I’m glad you like it.” Then puncturing the flirtatious veil of familiarity with an attenuated giggle and a “don’t want you gasping for air behind the wheel do we now.” Brother, she knew how to hit the launch button.

After asking how long he thought the journey would take she was back on the phone, her one true companion, wedged between her neck and a raised shoulder, an intimacy he could barely imagine. He liked her style. Lean and gamine, a bit French. The broad shoulders of a swimmer and erect stroll of a catwalk model. She was talking softly while looking out the offside window. He saw a low hoop earing resting on on the iPhone. He asked her if he could turn the radio on, down low? Looking into his eyes in the rear view mirror she said fine. Smiling small pleats fanned out from the sides of her mouth and he wondered if she was older than he thought? Maybe 40? Beautiful in that moneyed, manicured, sophisticated way. He tapped a preset button to ditch the drive-time news, something to do with European finance, in favour of a MoR station with non-stop oldies. Sheryl Crow was singing about a freeway. It felt right. The rhythm in time with the motion of the car, taking some of the sting out of the stop-start of rush hour traffic. He thought about his passenger. Her life. Her friends. Her lovers. He hated them all.

He’d picked Claudine Harper up many times, mostly from her apartment a red brick block with bay trees in tall galvanised metal pots either side of crittal doors. She’d usually be alone except for that time he’d collected her from a do in Notting Hill. She’d been with a posh boy in a suit and one of those shirts in which the chest and collar are different colours.  The guy had come on to her on the back seat.  There’d been a tussle and she’d pulled herself together pushing the posho off far enough and for long enough for her to give Micky his destination instructions. Not her place another, probably his, but in the same neck of the woods. The two colour shirt jerk had missed the body language and continued nuzzling her neck and doing something out of sight with his free arm.

“Freddy,” she’d yelled, straightening herself and shifting to the opposite side of the seat. “Stop it,” then looking up to the driver’s mirror, perhaps for approval? Freddy wasn’t impressed. In a high falutin accent, although maybe it wasn’t some theatrical mock and is actually the way he speaks, he insisted that she wasn’t normally this reserved. Quite the opposite in fact, reminding her of the last time they’d enjoyed an evening of martinis.

She caught Micky’s eye. 

“You were more discreet then when there wasn’t a bloody audience. For fuck’s sake Claudine it’s only the sodding driver.”

Micky had jumped on the brakes sprang out and pulled open the rear door with such speed Freddie almost tumbled out onto the pavement. It had the desired outcome too. The alcohol coursing Freddie’s dilated veins was then having the opposite effect to that for which he’d consumed it. In a heartbeat he’d sobered. He mumbled apologies and how he’d been out of order an how he was on medication that doesn’t mix with booze and that he hadn’t been thinking, and…whatever said Micky.

“And of course you’re much bigger than me so why don’t we just have a nice drive home and listen to the radio.” He’d shuffled uneasily. She’d laughed and agreed.

Freddie barely spoke for the next 25 minutes and when he did it was in an indecipherable mumble. He lived in one of the apartment blocks leading up to Richmond Park. One of those faceless steel and glass and always ‘luxury’ blocks that are going up all over the country with tacked on hearth rug balconies and are so cramped inside every window space resembles the inside of a cupboard cluttered with clothes and bicycles and modern paraphernalia. The sort of apartment that Penny said she wanted but which Micky could neither afford nor aspire too. 

Claudine had asked him to wait while she walked Freddie to the door. She kissed him on the cheek and after whispering something returned to the cab. She apologised and said he’s the nicest person on the planet, most of the time, but pour a few drinks inside him and he turns into an octopus, like most of the guys in her line of work. 

“Hands everywhere.”

Micky agreed Freddie had been out of line and that it wasn’t his place to intimidate passengers.

She shook her head and filling the car with Cabouchard disagreed saying he’d been a godsend. 

“Please, I really appreciate what you did. Don’t feel bad. Freddie needs reminding how to behave from time to time.” Her mobile played the opening bars to Boogie Wonderland. She pulled a face and Micky guessed it was Freddie. Stepping out into the warm night air she’d turned and asked for his name?

“Thank you Micky, for being my Galahad.”

“Company policy maam,” he’d replied with a theatrical bow.

She’d never mentioned that episode with Freddie again and he sensed she was reassured that the man behind the wheel was on her side. Then to his surprise she’d bought him a drink one morning on a Gatwick run. Other drivers were always bragging about this or that client buying them gifts, but not him, he’d never accepted anything – until that morning. She’d made up some story about getting the departure time wrong and going without breakfast. She wanted to stop and wanted company. She was coming on to him, that much was clear. She’d been wearing a two piece check suit in beige with epaulets and a green silk scarf tied around her neck like a choker and had said she knew this hotel on the outskirts of Crawley that does a great breakfast. She talked up the homemade marmalade and coffee like it mattered. The place empty but for a woman with silver hair and a small terrier to match. As the waitress approached Claudine announced she wasn’t hungry making a pitch for what she said were killer Bloody Marys instead. 

“With horseradish and a real kick. Whaddya say?”

He looked at his watch. It was probably the last job of the morning, so what the heck? They were sat next to each other in a red leatherette booth with an ornate gilt and glass art nouveau lamp on the table, by a bay window with intercontinental jets disappearing into a platinum stratus. She with her back to the window silhouetted in the grey light and him to her side marvelling her jaw line; a nose that lifted imperceptibly at the end and eyebrows as dark and glossy as her gamine bob. She could be a model and she knew a thing or two about Bloody Marys. 

She talked a lot and had said she’d grown up not far from where there. Her father had worked in airport security until he’d died of lung cancer when she was 10. Her mother was a nurse,  and her younger sister a teacher. She said she’d wanted something more exciting. Travel and entertaining, a bit of glamour. Public relations for a hedge fund (he didn’t like to ask what in hell that is?) was the perfect solution to a suburban girl looking to step out. 

“And you?” 

He told her he shared her passion for travel. He’d been a photographer with a local newspaper but like her wanted something, more. She smiled and raised her glass.  She drank like someone used to working a room and clinked her empty glass against his as if to say, another?

“I’m sorry, you’re driving, I shouldn’t encourage you. It’s just…well, to tell you the truth I haven’t felt this relaxed in a long while.” 

He wanted to kiss her  “I’ll drink to that,” said Micky poking his eye with the celery stalk.” She laughed then seeing his pained expression suppressed it. Time to go. She was still giggling when they stepped into the car.  She didn’t invite him for drinks after that leaving him to wonder  if he should have given her some sort of encouragement.

It was raining when they pulled up opposite the black cab rank at Kings Cross. Like all minicab drivers he knew never to trespass on their sacred strip of tarmac but nevertheless felt angry eyes on him. There was a policeman looking at him too. What’s the big deal? Everyone’s got to make a living. He helped Claudine with her case shifting awkwardly  and looking into her eyes as she stuffed a note into his breast pocket. Some woman he mused slipping back behind the wheel as a policeman in a high viz jacket approached the near side and gestured for him to pull away, pointing pendulously along the double yellow line, the taxi only loading bay. Remonstrating was out of the question. The near side front tyre was worn below the point at which it should have been replaced and he wasn’t too confident with the off-side either. Once you set those fellas off there’d be other misdemeanours. Best skedaddle and as me dear old gran used to say, “keep smiling.”

The Citroen wasn’t old. It’d only just come up for its first MoT, sailing through but for the near side stop light and the wear on that tyre. He’d bought it because it was cheap, very cheap owing to its high mileage and he’d liked it immediately. With He liked the way the hydropneumatic suspension sailed over speed humps at any speed and sound proofing that filtered all internal and external noises to a warm whooshing, seducing clients into feeling that they were riding in something prestigious. The Major, Rayburn’s boss, had liked it too and after a trial week, during which Micky’d done nothing but pub and nightclub runs, clearing gum and vomit off the tan leather, promoted the newby to account jobs.

“Rayburn 43 cleared, over,”. He slipped a CD into the player and slumped back into the driver’s seat as Maxwell’s whine took him back to a room and a girl long ago. Strange he thought, you don’t notice the traffic after a while. It’s just there, like the weather.

“43, it’s your lucky day. Evershalt Street, steps of Euston Station 19.00 hrs for Sandycombe Lane. Name of Joyce. Over.” 

That was more like it. And it’s cash. Slow along the Marylebone Road, and around Shepherds Bush, but who cares when you’re being paid for a return? And they were on time. An elderly couple, nice coats and shiny shoes, with old fashioned suitcases you need two hands to lift into the boot. The type without wheels and with sticker pennants stating where in the world they’d been, and, as it turned out, as good as gold. Been to stay with their son in Manchester. He’s some sort of producer whose wife had recently given birth to their first grandchild. The husband held up an iPhone with photographs of a baby. They smiled and chatted and talked all the way to Kew about how well their son is doing and the house their daughter-in-law is restoring in a neighbourhood that’s a bit down-at-heel but which everyone agrees is on the up. They spoke a lot about the personalities their son works with, names Micky had never heard of. He didn’t let on he wasn’t impressed. He didn’t want to burst their bubble. She rummaged around in a shiny handbag with a metal clasp that she clipped and unclipped and offered him a sweet, one of those parma violets his grandmother loved. He didn’t  take his hand off the wheel so she leant forward and dropped it into his mouth.  They were so nice they didn’t want him to get out when they arrived at their quiet street with tall hedges. When he revealed that he’d been born in Manchester the wife gasped and her husband squeezed her shoulder. “Like we were meant to be friends,” he said.

Next a short run from Mortlake High Street to Richmond, back to Mortlake for Richmond Station and then up to town for a pick up at The Connaught Rooms, destination Barnes Common. Lucky again.  Another cash job and the client, a penguin (one of Maxie’s terms for passengers in black tie). The name of Ingleby, a jolly man with a florid face, curly fair hair, and eyebrows that stood proud of an extended forehead like stickleback fins. He laughed a lot, too much, and said he owned a chain of launderettes. 

“You live around Richmond you may have washed your socks in one of my machines,” said the penguin in a voice more refined than he appeared. Upon which the woman with a voice of cigarettes and costermongering said he ought wash some of his own. The penguin scowled and dropped a business card on the passenger seat landing face down on a the remains of Micky’s egg mayonnaise sandwich. He talked, about the economy mostly, and the lack of get up and go in young people. Mickey wanted to concentrate on the drive but the penguin was leaning on the back of the passenger seat and spitting into his ear. He tried to focus on the neon world ahead of them; tale lights of the jets at roof height over Hounslow; tessellated patchworks of lights and lives in illuminated rooms unaware of inquisitive eyes; the grey blue flickering of televisions, and the ceaseless amber lit road. He’d heard a story once, he doesn’t know if it’s true but he likes it all the same, of a driver who simply couldn’t stop. He’d driven PoB until the fuel had run out, somewhere near Bristol, and even then he’d than remained in the car, the fare asleep beside him.

The penguin tipped well. A Jane Austen, folded in half with another business card inside. Micky left them in the driveway of a detached Edwardian house pulling away across the common to where Marc Bolan had been killed, jaded bouquets and wreaths tied to the chain link fence.

He’d been listening to Harold handing out jobs to Rayburns 32 and 18. Three for each of them for every one for other drivers. Reaching below his seat to turn up the volume heard his own call sign. 

“Go on 43, have a break, you’ve earned it. Got you down for Sheen Court to Notting Hill at ten Lover Boy. Name of a Caring. Over.” 

He’s lived with so many nicknames, what’s one more? His mother used to say, “don’t knock it, it means they’re talking about you. Better than than being forgotten.” Did she have a point? Some names are better than others. He earned his latest after a spate of bookings came in asking for him specifically,  and all of them women. It was his birthday, “and you’re not 30 every day” said Maxie who’d coined the name. Some call in and request Lover Boy which is fine except on those occasions when the pick-up is a couple and the boyfriend wants to now why his other half is so familiar with the driver? At best it’s a laugh, at worst a challenge.

Some drivers took their breaks at Rayburn’s offices above a former stables. But Micky didn’t like to spend too much time there. It’s a mess, rank with odour of cigarettes, food and unhygienic men. One of those smells that gets inside your nose and stays. An ochre lit pit where Dave, an affable Cornishman on the day shift, told him you have to remember to wipe your feet as your leave for fear of carrying something contagious with you. Maxie and Harold were eating kebabs when Micky entered.

“Whoa, Lover Boy. To what do we owe this honour?” Maxie threw him one of his cheesy grins whilst wiping bits of lettuce and chillie sauce from his chin. 

“Shouldn’t you be out spreading love and affection to all the lonely ladies of west London?”

Micky told him they’d have to wait. It’s wet and he needed some caffeine.

“Just don’t leave it too long. Yours is a civic duty.”

Harold made a noise that could be mistaken for a laugh. 

“Look at that,” said Maxie, “you’ve got Harold all worked up.”

Harold made another noise, louder and more unusual than the first. Two other drivers, whom Micky didn’t recognise, joined in the mirth. Maxie was on a roll, revelling at being the centre of attention. One of his favourite routines involved farting, then stopping mid-sentence and demanding to know what the noise was? The other drivers cracked-up every time.  He did it again interrupting a story the day driver, an Asian looking man with black hair and a goatee, had heard from a friend working for another minicab outfit in the east end. There had been some exchanges with black cab drivers at a drive-thru McDonalds and the police had been called. The black cabbies saying the minicabs were uninsured and were a risk to the public. There were no arrests and it all blew over until some weeks later a minicab was called to a pick-up in Soho Square at gone midnight. Within seconds he’d been surrounded by black cab drivers who flipped the Sierra over onto its roof with the driver inside.

“Like, was it a personal thing?” asked Harold.

Maxie laid the remains of his kebab on the radiator. “Yeah, like they were all personally pissed off with minicabs. What do you think you moron.” Harold looked hurt. “They think, and maybe with some reason, that we’re stealing their trade.”

Micky said they could also have been thinking they’d spent five years on The Knowledge and we roll in with hire and reward cover, and a GPS and we’re off.”

“Whose effing side are you on?” spat Jake.

“He’s on our side you wallaby. He’s pointing out, if you’ve got the time to listen, it’s the number one reason lardy arsed black cab drivers are pissed off with us.” Harold liked lardie arsed repeating it several times until Maxie threw him a look and a strip of  lettuce hung.

There’d been other attacks. Dog excrement on windscreens, tyres deflated and what a lot of drivers believed was an orchestrated  campaign of bilking; passengers doing runners at their destination without paying. Micky had had a couple. Initially friendly types, asking him all kinds of chummy questions about the life of a nighttime minicab driver  before skedaddling with a parting “fuck you”. 

If Micky had done his sums right he’d have enough for an E Class by the summer. And that’s when the big money’d roll in. He could break with Rayburn and either join one of the limo firms or go it alone. It’s why there was a photo of Jamie Foxx from Collateral on the inside of the sunshade. Less miles for more money. Evenings in the back seat watching Strictly while the penguins are getting fat. Then there’s the perks. Big ticket clients like to feather their fanbase. Micky had heard of a C-Class driver getting a case of Bollinger. Now it was his turn for some reward. “A man needs deserves some of that prestige action,” he said looking at himself in the mirror. Running a hand through his wavy hair and a finger across the bottom of his nose.  

He’d got six six texts since he last looked; two from his credit card company, another from the phone company, and two, the second a reminder with a quizzical emoji, from Penny asking him to drop by for breakfast. The last was from Annie calling him an “arsehole”; that’d be for calling her Penny in a reply. Disorientation is another part of the job? When will they ever learn? Two five ’til nine nights  one week and five one-after-the-others the next. This was one of the five nights straight and calling Annie ‘Penny’ hadn’t been his only mistake. He’d been counting his takings on the front seat and forgotten he was in gear. The Citroen lurched forward and punched a hole the size of a fist in back of a Smart car. A bony man with a high forehead and expensive spectacles took him for two hundred cash there and then to settle it. A night’s takings gone in a moment of madness. There’d been a mystery overcharging too. It was the first time he’d seen the Major since his interview six months ago. He was accused of overcharging some Dutchman, who he’d charged £50 for a £25 pound job. He’d thought it’d been odd the next day. The drunken idiot had paid so what was the big deal? The Major accepted the Dutchman was drunk, “he’d said as much in his letter. But he’d been expecting some change.”

Penny was in bed when Micky threw the car keys on to the draining board and poured the remains of the Rioja into a teacup. A studio with a bed just three strides from the kitchen appliances. She’d fixed it up well in a hippy dippy kind of way with rugs and antimacassars, William Morris wallpaper with peacocks and swirls, a dream catcher in the window, and bunches dead roses hanging from the bookshelves. He liked it, cocooned in Penny’s mystical world just yards from Richmond Park at the top of stuccoed Regency house with a monkey puzzle tree in the garden. He undressed in the grey half light and climbed in next to her. The bed creaked and Penny  silently drew him closer. Without speaking she rolled to her side and placed him inside her. In the morning he’d found a note about croissants in the bread-bin and fresh orange juice in the fridge.

The pick up at Sheen Court was to Epsom so next to no chance of a return. With the park closing at sunset it meant a run out to Ham and through to Kingston. The GPS pointed him to Surbiton and Ewell. Harold interrupted the Delphonics with something about a police checkpoint at the foot of Kingston Hill. Have to be Hook then, and then cut back.

“Where are you going,” barked the client. “This isn’t the way.” He was indignant. Hadn’t he hear the RT? His anger subsided. A burst water main at Surbiton and a tailback? Of course he hadn’t heard, he’d been on the phone.  Micky assured him it was the same price. When the company quotes it sticks to it. Client indignation goes with the job. There’s always a better, faster and cheaper route. Micky didn’t mind. He liked the quiet life. It’s why he always explained his route before setting off. If they knew a better one, fine. And when theirs backfired, which it frequently did, he’d be in the clear. 

It was gone midnight when Harold sent him back to Twickenham, for the fourth time. A wait and return to Hampton Court, the client paying £30 an hour waiting time. Would have been cheaper to call for another cab. The pick up was at one of those tall terraced 1970s homes with a garage next to the front door. There were German cars on every drive except those with Range Rovers.  The client was around his age, maybe in her early 30s. Nice looking by the name of Gittings. Shoulder length blonde hair with highlights. She was wearing a short checked overcoat with a high collar. Petite, even with heels like skewers. She didn’t smile and didn’t look at him. Sniffy bitch then.

“Sandringham Avenue, wait and return.” Nothing about the weather or the traffic or how it’s a funny time of night to be making house calls. A baby sitter maybe, or a carer? No, non of those. She was way too angry with a face that said she’d belt anyone who spoke out of turn. And then there’s the wait. So, she’s coming back. Hey. Who cares? She was cute, she had money to burn, and this was his favourite time of the shift; gone midnight when the traffic was light and the feeling of desolation comforting for a man who liked to be alone. His mobile buzzed in his pocket. It was Penny wanting to know if he’d be calling in for breakfast? He’d been there four or five times for breakfast now and hadn’t eaten a thing. The passenger was motionless, staring at the back of his headrest, sparkly blue and red maquillage delineating the outline of her cheekbones. To break the ice he said it wasn’t long now. No reaction.

Of course he’d known where they were headed the second Suzie had instructed him to turn left in 400 yards, and to “keep right”. This would normally be about the time the Cabouchard stirred in the back; his class act gathering her phone and papers, ready to flash him that smile. He’d tapped in Sandringham Avenue without giving it a second thought. Why hadn’t Harold said Dene Court Mansions? He’d have got there on autopilot. He could smell the citrus and spice and have killed for another shot at those Bloody Marys. There’s another bay tree and a new lamp above the door and no concierge.

“You know why we’re here, don’t you? No of course you don’t. But you’ll find out sooner or later though so I might as well tell you.” She swallowed like someone whose bitten off more than they can chew. Nervous? No, it’s more than that, she’s set to blow. He shifted around in his seat to face her but she was staring out of the nearside window towards the block.

“We are here…because my husband is in there.”

Was he expecting her he asked thinly? She snorted. “No way. He and his bitch are about to get the surprise of their lives.” And with that she’s out the door and through the wrought iron gate. Turning she snapped, “you don’t move, that’s the deal. You stay.” Micky nodded, then lowering the driver’s window called out, “you sure you want to do this?”  No response. 

He didn’t like it one bit. They’d been mulling over a similar situation at the office just that week, and that one had ended badly. Like tonight the husband had been fooling around, the only difference being that when the wife got out the Rayburn she went to work on the girlfriend’s Audi with a screwdriver. With the car alarm in full swing her hubby was outside before she could complete etching ‘fucking sla…’ on the bonnet.

“Control, Rayburn 43 this Dene Court wait and return can I have some clarity? Over.” Silence, but for the scream of a fox in the rank darkness. Nothing from control. A curtain moved on the first floor and a shaft of light silhouetted an inquisitive occupant illuminating the path to the door. He looked up and the curtain swung back. Something wasn’t right. It had to be more than a coincidence that this was Claudine’s address.

Thinking on his feet was never one of Micky’s strong points. He was more the sort to meander around a situation rather than jump in feet first. Penny used to say he didn’t do spontaneity; she’d order for him in restaurants. What if all hell broke loose and Claudine saw him waiting in the car? He should get the hell out of there, it’s what Maxie would do. It’s what any sensible person would do. Walk away from something that didn’t concern them. But there’s the problem “it does concern me” he whispered as he unclipped the seatbelt and stepped out into the charged night air. He could smell the Cabouchard. A man in a hat with a small dog were leaving as he stepped up to the door. Catching it just as it was about to click shut he thanked the dog walker and was inside before the man had time to ask him what he was doing? If he’d been asked he wouldn’t have known how to answer. He didn’t know where he was going or what he was doing? He called Rayburn again. The brass letter boxes bore apartment numbers not names.  Harold’d sent him here enough times he must know which is Claudine’s flat? He span him some yarn about how the passenger was visiting their account client and had left a package on the back seat. Maxie would have put to and two together but Harold bought it. “You ok 43? Been running?”

Micky said he should quit the fags. “Roger that 43. Third floor,  number 17.” No time for the lift. He ran six flights and felt his chest about to explode. He leant on the doorbell and thumped with his fists. 

Freddie answered bare chested with a towel around his waist. A voice somewhere, Claudine, asked who it was? 

“It’s your taxi driver, and by the look of him I think he wants a duel.

“Is that it cabbie? Guns at dawn?”

Micky couldn’t speak. After 84 steps, and slipping and falling and hitting his head on the polished brass banister he could barely breathe. And here was that posho again, here in Claudine’s apartment looking as smug as a man who’s ship has just come in with a cargo containing the most attractive woman in west London. He should have flattened him when he had the chance. Instead of now feeling the lifeblood drain out of him. 

“Is she alright?” He couldn’t help himself. He could see what it looked like yet despite himself, and having good idea how all of this must have looked to the bare chested Cheshire cat in front of him, he needed to know Claudine was safe. Was there someone there called Gittings. He started to describe his passenger that only had the effect of making Freddie laugh even louder. He tried to look past him but every time he leant this way or that Freddie moved to block his view.

“Ole,” yelled Freddie each time he tilted to block Micky’s view. So, had she called a cab? No, he didn’t think so, calling over his bare shoulder into the dimly lit hall with picture frames on both sides the length of it. A muffled ‘no’ and something he couldn’t discern. Freddie said not to worry and then turned back to face Micky who was starting to regain his composure. “So unless you’ve got a pair of loaded pistols with you I suggest you fuck off.” With that the door slammed shut.

Passing through the lobby the man with the dog said something about it being a private block and something else about turning his back on him. He wasn’t bothered. He needed to be outside in the calm of the night. There was a quarter of Glenmorangie in the glove compartment. There was something else too, the glib, colourless repetition of his call sign on the RT: 43, 43; Rayburn 43; 43, where are you 43? He found the bottle behind his AtoZ and with his other hand swung the Citroen on a short circuit of the cul-de-sac heading back to the main road just as his passenger stepped out into the road with an undisguised expression of defiance. He pulled up along side and lowered the passenger side window. They weren’t at home she said sounding disappointed, “and where were you? I’ve been here for five minutes.” He apologised telling her he’d gone for a smoke.

There it was again, like a pic he couldn’t shake off. Rayburn 43, Rayburn 43 what was his situation? Over.

“POB Twickenham. Over.”

“Sounds like Lover Boy sorted it out. Over.”

“Rayburn 43. Something like that. Over.”

By the early hours the smell of cigarettes and body odour at Rayburn  is overwhelming. There are four bunks in the corner furthest from the glass screened office and every one was occupied by men in crumpled suits, and all but Micky had their shoes and socks on the floor by the only window which was shut  tight and sealed with parcel tape, because it was December and cold outside. The air was sour and the noise an insomniac’s cocktail of muffled RT chatter and the wheezy breathing of men who work long hours and smoked too much. It was impossible to sleep drifting fitfully in and out of consciousness. He thought about the house where he grew up in Suffolk and summers on the beach wind surfing and getting laid in the dunes. He felt a warm sensation and thought of something less erotic. His mobile vibrated in his pocket. She missed him, and he missed her, but only for the thing he is trying not to think about. The phone vibrated again: “bring some bubble bath and I’ll blow your bubbles.” He smiled and rolled over.

It was nearly four when Maxi, prodding his arm with his mobile phone, snapped him out of a dream about a journey he can’t get back from. In it he has to leave friends he doesn’t recognise and return home, but each way he turns is narrower or lower or more precipitous than before. Maxi jabs him harder as he is pushing through a crowd. His legs are moving but he doesn’t make any progress.

“You’re on Lover Boy. Lil wants her  fags, and it’s your turn.”

Lil’s real name is Mary and she is the sister of a singer who had some hits when he was a boy. His parents used to play one, a 45 they’d called it. He could see the red paper sleeve it came in with a hole in the centre.  He doesn’t know what Mary, maybe in her 70s, does, only that she likes to buy her cigarettes  in the early hours of the morning at a 24 hour service station ten minutes on foot from her home.  Some of the other drivers say Mary had come on to them. Maxie even hinted that he’d seen some action there. But that’s Maxie, and whatever he says needs to be taken with a pinch of salt. He isn’t concerned with gossip, he likes her. So what if she’s lost in the past? He couldn’t remember a time when she hadn’t bragged about the parties she and her sister had been to, or the headlines, or the phone calls from movie stars he’d never heard of. But that’s ok. He liked her enthusiasm, her fur coats, and heavy makeup, and in a funny sort of way he empathised with her feeling of uselessness. She just liked to break up the loneliness of sleepless nights. He’d said this to Control and Maxie after one such dead of night cigarette run. Their response had been howls of laughter, and more Lover Boy jibes.

“She’s harmless.”

“And so are you,” said Maxie, to hoots of approval.

It was still dark and more than usual because the light beneath the office was out. He pressed the ignition fob so he could be guided by the car’s but doing so he walked full square into an iron staircase that  ceased being  useful years ago. He stumbled back in a heap hitting his head on one of the other cars smelling the blood in his nose and the crack on his forehead. He felt sick. The car lights were on a timer and quickly dimmed into darkness. He pressed the fob again and found the strength to stand and get in behind the wheel. Drawing down the eyeshade and looking in the mirror his injuries were less than he expected. Some grazing and blood hanging from his nose.

Mary didn’t notice the bloodied tissues on the passenger seat, nor his pallor,  talking incessantly about Lily all the way to the service station. There was a comeback tour being mooted and she’d be in charge of the wardrobe. He nodded in an interested way and she was still talking about necklines and shoes long after they’d pulled up in the deserted forecourt. A youth behind the glass looked up from his phone and acknowledged two of his regulars. Micky nodded back and tilted his head towards Mary who was in full flight about an awards show she and Lily were at in the 70s. He’d told his mother about the little woman who does her shopping in the middle of the night, who’d unearthed, from somewhere in a cupboard sealed up for years a record Lily had charted when she was a girl. 

Mary didn’t just want cigarettes. From where Micky was parked it looked like she was doing a major shop the youth tooing and froing between the shelves and the pay window. Holding items up and Mary nodding or shaking her head. Finally he met her at the door and handed her two full carrier bags. She was still talking as the young salesman backed away from the door. Micky papped the horn. She turned towards the car with a smile; a little old lady with two bags and a lot of class. He fished around in the glove compartment and popped another paracetamol. 

Minutes later Mary waved him off. “Rayburn 43, cleared, over.” 

There was a early morning glow to the east, the stuff of postcards. Sheen to the Cross. Victoria to Kew. Twickenham to Terminal 2, and then the cherry of them all, Terminal 2 to Banbury. A pair of Dutch businessmen, on account, handing him a bag of croissants talking a lot about someone called Robin van Persie. He felt good. Clearer than he had for a while. His mobile vibrated. Penny again. He turned it off and followed the GPS’s instructions to a small modern office block on the outskirts of Banbury.  It’d taken an hour, and by then in broad daylight.

“Rayburn 43, Cleared. Over.” What are the chance of a return fare? Slim, but he is feeling lucky and calls again. Still nothing. The paracetamols are wearing off. He reaches into the glove compartment for some more and recalls he’d taken the last. His head hurts now, in a deep, dull, throbbing sort of way, and the smell of blood is back. 

“Rayburn 43. Cleared. Over.” 

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happy birthday

 

When winter’s gone and chills are scant,

Our thoughts do turn to Polyphant.

Therein amid a blaze of grandiflora blooms, 

A steadfast clock and sun drenched rooms,

Each one radiant with wood and dust and webs and brass.

Where to cheer and raise a birthday glass 

To    That There Sonia,

                                                 Sat composedly upon her slender arse…

                                                 Bill Mandrake April 25, 2021

 

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Tied In Knots

 

I’ll be frank, I didn’t know whether to be flattered or alarmed when a friend casually noted that I was wearing a tie while walking Asta on the beach. Not in a business suity sorta way with a white shirt and four in hand knot. More down-home with a sombre drab green casual tie loosely wrapped around an ancient corduroy shirt. Some weeks later our cleaner, observing me with secateurs and shears in the back garden, noted she had never before met anyone doing the gardening wearing a tie. 

Despite having been around for the better part of 200 years ties and tie wearers continue to come in for a good deal of stick. More than cardigans and overcoats, snap-brim hats and suits, in the eyes of many ties represent work and or the establishment –  the embodiment of uncool. And yet I recall waiting outside a nightclub in Victoria some time ago with a friend, whom David Bowie none the lesser once asked approval from for what he was wearing, when the doorman intoned “you can waste the tie.” I thought our other friend was going to clout him. Some years later I pulled out of a local west country society tired of fellow members forever reminding me that the wearing of a tie is not required, and is indeed even frowned upon. Where I come from fleeces and cargo pants are frowned upon. Some blokes even wear lairy patterned socks of that I don’t mind admitting I have a problem with but which I still get given at Christmases and birthdays. Others wear hoodies and jumpers with designer labels on them or ‘old guys rule’ t-shirts. And they complain when I wear tie! It’s not on. 

OK, I’ll admit I wasn’t always so taken with them. Like the other boys in my year I couldn’t wait to get shot of mine the second I passed the school gates in the misguided belief that west London girls would find me irresistible in a two tone striped blue blazer, 17 inch turn up trousers and a hair shorter at the back and sides than the Peaky Blinders’. But hey look sister, no tie.

Looking back I think it was the hippies that changed my perception. If the prevailing style of the western world was going to be intentionally unkempt I was going the other way. While pals listened to Jethro Tull and dressed like Big Issue sellers I was spinning Gladys Knight and spending my Saturday job earnings on three piece suits and ties as wide as tea trays. My knotty predilection coming to chime with the prevailing fashion trend among urbanist-as some years later when New Wave and Punk embraced ties as a sort of piss take. A kind of ‘yeah, a tie, what of it?’ My girlfriend at the time found/bought/stole me a plastic one that was tricky to knot but kept the beer off my shirt. 

 

then

Because I’m the sort of person who likes looking at myself there is a photograph in the kitchen (one of many of Kim and I ) of me in a jacket, shirt and polka dot blue and white tie lunching on a some baguette and camembert in La Tuileries. I’m guessing it was taken in 1977 when I was 24 years old. 43 years later I’m doing the weeding in a brown corduroy shirt and green tartan tie that I found in the pocket of a vintage jacket. It’s probably my favourite tie along with two Yves Saint Laurent ties bought in a Liberty sale around 1988, a pair of Ralph Lauren ties (a black and white one with cars and a red and white with race horses) a present from a musician maybe a year earlier, and a blue knitted one, also from a sale at my favourite department store. My most expensive tie (about the price of a main course at The Seafood Restaurant) and also knitted I found in a vintage shop in Bath.

now (…ish)

So what’s the big deal with ties? They cover the line of buttons down the middle of your chest, provide a symmetrical centre point within the contours of a shirt and notched lapel, and further more set a fella apart from scruffy oiks that make up most of humanity by placing something interesting in that scrawny gap below the chin. In my case (and I’m not fishing for sympathy) they furthermore serve to draw attention away from a sizeable neck scar that’s been both my maker and nemesis since I was a child. It’s one of the reasons I veer on the side of the slackened knot with a top button generally undone look (the scar objects to a stiff buttoned up collar) and with a cardigan rather than a jacket; not a rule that’s set in stone. I can also appreciate the temptation to opt for the buttoned up shirt and tie behind a crew neck sweater as favoured by Carlo Ancelotti. A relaxed smartness. Strong on coordination, ties in wool or cotton and rarely of silk. As rule of thumb anything your geography teacher may have. Come to think of it that may be where my sombre shirt and tie look originated. I remember him (not his name) telling the class he wore a dark blue shirt every day because he could wear it for a week without the dirt showing. How woke. 

In keeping with the classic notched lapel jacket its sartorial partner the tie has its antecedents in military uniforms, appearing first in 17th century when Croatian mercenaries, in the employ of Louis Xlll during the Thirty Years War, arrived in France sporting seriously suave scarves. The French were so impressed they called the scarves cravats (a derivation of Croat and the French word for tie). The tie was more flamboyant in them times and worn by women just as much as men. After centuries of floppy bows by the start of the 20th century those cravats became ties, narrower, less ostentatious and hanging the entire length of the torso from top button to waist. They came to symbolise a certain correctness, professionalism, military rank and status, school, and sports club membership. The tie said who you were. 

I’ll admit these are different times, exacerbated by the pandemic and the drift toward lounge wear. According to research (!) only a third of UK office staff wear ties to work, largely as a result of the ‘dress down Friday’ campaign launched around the turn of the century. Personally I blame David Cameron for a lot of things (the present prime minister included) but the tieless open neck shirt was the final straw.  In California the tech companies that supply so much of what we don’t need but make billions in the process make employment conditional on staff not wearing ties (or suits). The Facebook chief even appearing infront a congressional hearing in a hoodie. 

I’m not saying you must wear a tie with a shirt and jacket. Just don’t leave the tie in the drawer because you think you’ll look hip without it. It’s aesthetics and comfort that count not some half baked belief that dressing down and not like a Croatian military officer means you’re out of step with the street. For three generations of men the tie has come to represent old fashioned; an unnecessary piece of kit long past its sell-by date that means you’re either at work or old and quite possibly both. The sort of men who in their 50s wear cap sleeve T-shirts, quilted biker jackets, beanie caps, Crocks and designer sports footwear and skinny jeans in the delusional belief that they make them appear younger than they really are. My advice to them – buy a tie; better to be dapper than a dope. 

OK, under pressure I’ve tried fleeces (too itchy) and I’ve tried t-shirts (too much neck). I really like roll/turtle necks (but sometimes a bit too artful) and open necks are fine (with a cravat although I prefer the word scarf). But when all’s said and done I’m never happier than in a dark blue button down shirt undone at the top with a loosely knotted darkish tie (result).  I should have been a geography teacher. 

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It’s a dog’s life on Tregirls

The oceanic panarama at Tregirls’ changes all the time. This half mile stretch of sand from St.George’s Well to Harbour Cove, washed by the Atlantic and patterned with a patchwork imprint of thousands of webbed feet, changes from one hour to the next. What may begin as a maelstrom of north westerlies pounding thunderous waves upon Pentire Point can, in the time it takes to follow the track up to the shelter of Chapel Stile, be transformed into a scene of lapis tranquility. To quote myself on such a day many years past – it doesn’t get any better.

Of this changing vista our friend Sonia says “if you don’t like the weather,  just wait 20 minutes and it’ll change.” And she knows this stretch better than most. 

Within this shifting natural world, where the dunes slip and slide and the rock faces crumble and one day the sand is littered with driftwood and seaweed and hunks of coal the next the only constant unchanging element are the dog walkers. Come rain or shine, hail storm or summer breeze, these sturdy walkers and their loyal, happy, and over indulged four legged friends are there. If you want to know what true friendship is all about you should join them.

Some  arrive early while breakfast is still being served. They emerge from the thicket at the foot of Lellizick or from down past the cabbages and cauliflowers on Tregirls Farm, accompanied by the peeping of circling a buzzard. Others make the trek up from Padstow and those with stout footwear may tackle Trig Troll for the breathtaking view that rewards them at the spot where the rutted track falls away to the old stone stile.

Such a hardy bunch. Tregirls just wouldn’t be Tregirls without them.

appearing in the order in which they were photographed

Mike with Maggie and May

Suzie with Brion and Clodagh

 

Kim and Ziggy

 

kim and asta 2

Kim with Asta

Wendy and Betsy

 

Chris and Jim and Charlie

 

Dave with Hugo

 

Cath and Socks

 

Paul and airborne Kinga

 

Steve with Willow

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Coronavirus – a September view from Padstow

Kim and I went blackberrying today to an evidently not-so-secret spot near Constantine Bay: our source heavily pre-picked by the look of the denuded brambles. 

It had been chilly when we left the house, passers-by in puffa jackets and woolly hats, but by the time we pulled up near Mother Ivey’s Bay Holiday Park the cumulous clouds had ameliorated providing plenty of clear blue sky and from it some much appreciated late season warmth.

Our first pickings were slim and a fraction of the over plump fruits that Kim converted into blackberry and apple jelly this time last year. Back then we had had the brambles to ourselves whereas this weekend we were watched by a steady stream of curious ramblers. Happily the quality our pickings improved the closer we got to the beach. (You’ll notice that I am being purposefully vague as to our precise whereabouts). 

Less than a month ago friends and neighbours were looking forward, as we all do annually, to the schools going back and the area returning to a more peaceful normality. A well deserved end to the annoying people dodging on the slow climb up from St.George’s Well with The Camel twisting lazily to our left. This time of year on Constantine you would reckon on fewer than a couple of dozen walkers: weekenders among diehard cold water surfers and stout hearted locals. But this is what they keep telling us is the new normal and on this stretch of coast it translates into holidaymakers in their droves long after they would normally have been expected to home. Narrow lanes of trails of timidly driven cars, restaurants and b&b’s booked up and pedestrians in town and elsewhere oblivious to the new social etiquette.

In fareness most people seem to be behaving responsibly whilst there is a good deal of hugging and handshaking still going on. In Mole Valley Farmers in Newquay nobody challenged those wondering around without masks and in the Wadebridge branch of Aldi I was almost sent flying by a thirty-something couple who evidently put speed above medical courtesy.  Here in the Padstow supermarket I’ve grown accustomed to ducking and diving away from those young and old and many with masks around their chins oblivious to the impact of the their actions. You have to have sympathy for the long suffering staff. 

Of course Constantine was as lovely as ever, maybe more so with a tame north wind clearing a path for the sun. The big difference being no children and an absence of family paraphernalia. Instead there are couples and a deeply blue surf peppered with shiny black dots. I didn’t count how many people were on the beach but it had to be hundreds. The holiday season, possibly because fewer of us going abroad, hasn’t ended here in Padstow and its environs close by  – it’s just matured. The car parks still full of expensive 4x4s but the people behind the wheels that bit older or a tad trendier. 

This Covid thing is impacting on our stretch of north Cornwall in a variety of ways. Despite social distancing and a 10pm curfew there are queues of thirsty masked tourists outside every pub and bar and you’ll be lucky to get an allocated table in a restaurant for longer than 90 minutes.

Then there is the sheer number of properties for sale. At a ballpark guess more than were for sale when Kim and I first came looking in 1993. And not the sort of homes work-at-home-city-quitters are looking for having just en suites, a single kitchen living room and gardens not big enough to swing a kitten in.  Things are evidently changing, it’s just not clear how?

We won’t know the longterm impact of this virus on Padstow for some years to come by which time we will be able to factor in chlorinated Brexit too. There are expensive development projects afoot but without exception each instigated long before age and underlying health issues became the defining medical issues of the 21st century.

Happily Constantine remains magnificent, a broad crescent bay where the elements coalesce to heart stopping effect. Two days later  I am emptying its golden sands from my jeans, the aroma of jam permeating every corner of  The Red House. 

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that’s enough of that then – the scourge of shamefluencers

 

If your sense of style has been turned on it’s head and your concept of acceptable popular culture is in retreat then perhaps like me you are an unwitting victim of  shamefluencing. 

I became aware of this new threat, the converse of influencing, when the obnoxious right honourable member for the 18th century appeared on the national political scene in what is his default attire, a grey flannel double breasted suit, almost the double of one in my wardrobe acquired at a sale in Savile Row. The suit was never a favourite of mine. Whenever I wore it I had to find ways to dress it down and make it seem less like the staple of a karnty estate agent. Nonetheless I clung on to it for those occasions I felt the need for a vast flapping notched collar.

No more. In all honesty how could I wear anything favoured by someone so unpleasantly disingenuous and a tory anti European to boot. I hung on for six months before offloading it on ebay.

forget this….

But alas the MP for north east Somerset is turning into the shamefluencing equivalent of Paris Hilton. Just the other week he was depicted on the front page of another national newspaper scoffing an ice-cream in a double breasted blazer, not dissimilar to a vintage Yves Saint Laurent version I have been wearing for years. The last occasion was for my speech at my friend Robert’s 60th birthday do in Clerkenwell. I think I wore it at his 50th too at The Groucho Club. It has raised as few eyebrows over the years, what with its brass anchos buttons, and suggestions of old majors and cricketing types. But I love it, or I did until that infernal front page.

It’s a neat and infuriating trick turning the new advertising norm of influencing on its head. 

Influencers earn fortunes, and I don’t mean the Kardashians. I’m talking about non celebrity influencers; young and attractive with exceptional teeth. Millions hang on to their every pout on social media earning them eye watering sums to buff themselves with the latest cosmetics,  slip into some new garb, and hang out at cool gin joints. A bit like my time with The Sunday Times’ Good Gear Guide except instead of earning millions I got to keep a few free anoraks and walking boots. I still have a portable espresso maker in a box intended for a quick caffeine hit off the beaten track. 

…and this too

Influencers mean nothing to me being immune to coercion whether disingenuous (faux life) or overt (advertising). I don’t even feel a twinge when I see Ray Winston plying his down-the-pub cockney lilt urging me to ‘bet in play’. My generation- post hippie pre bling – was gifted with a healthy dose of scepticism, ie nausea, whenever someone with status and money seeks to flog us anything – be it crisps, sherry, cars, insurance, breakfast cereal, sugary drinks and footwear,you name it.

But things seldom pan out as planned and I now I find myself succumbing to more insidious shamefluencers. An altogether sinister celebrity cult with the possibly unintentional aim of undermining our faith, trust and desire of long cherished items. The antithesis marketing shaming us to renounce those which we held (wore) dear.

That other right wing scourge , the thin lipped cheeky chappie former banker turned Brexiteer, is also making a name for himself at a shamefluencer. For years I have treasured my single breasted covert coat with a brown velvet collar, bought from my favourite vintage clothes store Hornets of Kensington (coincidentally the source of the Yves Saint Laurent blazer). Nowadays the man who couldn’t buy a seat in the House of Commons can’t be seen wielding a pint of beer without his covert coat and it is surely only a matter of time before someone puts two and two together. 

I used to enjoy cheese too until it was revealed that our prime minister’s self confessed obesity is due to his fondness for fromage. I’d choke if I ate another slice and thence his odious slap-head adviser, the one who drove 60 miles during lockdown to check his eyesight while the rest of us weren’t allowed any further than the supermarket, declared a ‘hard rain’ would fall upon the civil service. In one tainting the Freewheelin’ album and just about any other Dylan track for the sad and simple reason that henceforth whenever I hear them I’ll be reminded of the geek who currently has our prime minister’s arse. 

Quitting when things look wrong is easy. I quit Amazon 12 years ago when I discovered how many bookshops the company was directly responsible for putting out of business. At the last count it was north of 40,000 in the US alone and now has its sights set on grocers. Fast food became a no no during mad cow when we were treated to daily  images of industrial animal rearing. And Medjoul dates – the big plump juicy and very delicious variety from Israel – when it was revealed most come from farms stolen from Palestinians.  Electric cars as it became clear where the lithium and cobalt in their batteries is sourced (the Democratic Republic of Congo) and the child slave labour used to mine them and the cancers and ecological destruction therein.  Then knock out anything by Roman Polanski and Michael Jackson or containing Benedict Cumberbatch.

As yet shamefluencers don’t receive any renumeration for making aspects of my wardrobe untenable. I daresay there are some in north east Somerset who as I write are banging on the doors of Gieves & Hawkes demanding grey flannel double breasted suits and covert coats. I just pray non of the above discover a latent appetite for Bill Evans or Fulham Football Club. 

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life in the slow lane

It’s hard to comprehend I know but I like my Mercedes Benz estate. Not much to crow about in car terms, I’ll admit. It’s a C-Class diesel and far from being the fasted thing on the road, and despite the metallic blue paintwork and low profile alloy wheels, it is by no means the most elegant. In fact, I am a little ashamed to admit that it is by default the sort of car older men with eye on economy choose. But I’ll say it here, and I’ll say it loud, my four year old Merc is giving me driving pleasure, in spades.

It’s an automatic, of course: Since buying my first ‘auto’, an unloved gold Citroen CX in the early 90s, I have not been able to see the point of manual gear boxes (aka ‘shift sticks’). There’s less faffing around for one thing. Traffic jams – of which there are many on my frequent trips to the west country – are less irksome, and I can hold things like cups of coffee or select tracks on my iPod with relative impunity. The overall drive with an automatic gearbox best summed up as, relaxing. Which is the way I like my driving to be. Calm and measured, with as little stress as is humanely and mechanically possible. 

That may be the reason why I have never been bothered (that much) about performance cars, of any hue. I’ll admit that there are occasions when I do like to get ahead briskly, and with unvarnished excitement press the pedal to the metal. And on the infrequent occasions that I do my actions are such a jolt to the car’s internal combustion system that I leave behind the sort of dark cloud we have come to expect of a vehicle clearing its throat after thousands of leisurely cruising in the slow lane, while unburnt emissions clog the exhaust arteries. Being, for me, a relatively new car those full speed emissions from the C-Class are modest: Imagine a stowaway in the boot puffing on a Cohiba Esplandidos and blowing the smoke through the number plate rivets. This in contrast to my CE 280 coupe, with a 2.8 straight six engine beneath the bonnet the shape and dimensions of the sort of dining table used for banquets. It is likely that the designer of that early 1980s Mercedes, a pillar-less coupe with a sunroof for the sensation of being in a convertible with non of the drawbacks, had spent many happy hours floating effortlessly upon a waterbed. Those wallowing, fluid filled mattresses were to 1970s aspirationals what the ensuite bathroom is today. With the suspension characteristics of a waterbed my CE didn’t so much as corner as drift around, near side always several inches higher than the driver’s side. It sounds unnerving but on those fast sweeping A road bends along the north Cornish coast, where the daring driver is encouraged by clear sight lines for several hundreds of yards ahead, I learnt to relish the challenge of taking a wide line, in the middle of the road a good distance before the apex and just at the moment I could sense the centrifugal forces galvanise to send us all to hell and back in a field of root vegetables, of pulling hard on the steering wheel and flooring the accelerator thereby levelling the car and exiting the bend with the thrust and choking smoke of a steam train. 

In comparison to the silky, to the point of bland, power of a three litre BMW Coupe I very nearly bought from an old school friend some time later, and the howling authority of a Ferrari I drove around Hertfordshire for an article I was writing for a national newspaper on the subject of hiring a supercar for the day, that silver CE’s acceleration was nothing. But for someone prone only to infrequent bursts of aggression that pleasure – the speed, the smoke and above all, the noise – was akin to slipping on a suit that had been in the wardrobe for years only to discover a 50 pound note in the pocket. It doesn’t happen very often, but when it does – boy!

I was too young to be a hippie, and even if I had wanted to grow my hair long and look forlorn the prefects who ran my private school in Hounslow, West London, with the sadistic cruelty of Gulag prison guards, might have had something to say about it. Nonetheless that early ‘green’, cool-to-be-kind philosophy underpinned how we thought in the early 70s. Colour advertisements for Citroen 2CV’s, with potted plants poking out of their roll back roofs seemed appealing. As did others for Mini Mokes, a sort of corrugated iron buggy that’s biggest claim to fame was to feature in the television series The Prisoner, conceived by and starring the late Patrick McGoohan. It seems hard to believe now, when cars, despite paying a lip service to the environment and dwindling fuel resources, are objects of lust, but the coolest cars then were the most practical. Luxury models were driven by the old guard, and sports cars either by hooray Henrys or backstreet racers, leaving the dreariest for the caring middle class, of which I was nominally a member. They were different times. Before shopping became the de facto national obsession it is today we simply didn’t lust over stuff the way we are encouraged to today.  The greatest trick capitalism ever played was making the telephone just about the most coveted object of desire on the planet. So much so that young people will kill each other for the newest model, and journalists freely describe the most tactile as ‘sexy’. Our phones were on a table in the hall, by the stairs. The only thing I could remember being sexy was Rachel Welch in a fur bikini in 2000 Years BC. 

Taking all of that on board you can understand why non of my friends looked twice when I pulled up in my first car, a 1969 primrose yellow Triumph Herald Estate. It had a rorty 1300cc engine beneath a bonnet that opened back from the windscreen, two doors, a tailgate and a backseat that folded forward. It was a car, nothing more. It’s only statement to the world was that it was in good condition and would provide safe and reliable service. 

That Triumph was bought at a car auction in Surrey, during a speedy transaction that I took no part in. One of my friends at school was a tall, rather serious boy called David, whose father, a somewhat lugubrious man called Roy, worked in the motor trade. He drove an Aston Martin and ran two petrol stations and used car dealerships in west London. By the time I had grown tired of falling off motorcycles and was ready to buy my first car he had inducted David, reluctantly I suspected, into the family business. With most of the contents of my Post Office Savings Account stuffed into my jeans David took me to the car auction in Camberley, armed only with the car dealer’s Bible, the Class’s Guide; a copious list of suggested car values based on age, mileage, condition and accessories. It meant nothing to me. I didn’t know a front wheel drive from the hide quarters of a cow, and I can remember feeling quite indifferent when David grew interested in the pretty little Triumph. A comparable car today would be five year old Vauxhall Astra, or Honda Accord, something so anonymous as to barely merit a mention. Which, in fact, it didn’t. As far as my friends and I were concerned I had a car, which meant we could all go out together and remain warm and dry. Nobody asked about its performance figures or how many miles per gallon I could expect from it. Nobody even remarked upon the colour.

David and I didn’t discuss cars, or when it might be appropriate for me to upgrade to  bigger and better models.  It was more symbiotic than that. From time to time he would suggest I give him whatever car I had, and in return he would provide me with another. I never looked at the Class’s Guide to see if the deal was a fair one. Why would I? The cars were always in good condition and in good working order. I recall a blue and white Austin Mini van with a small ventilation flap on the roof. It had previously belonged to a tyre specialist in Staines, in Middlesex. I only knew that because whoever did the respray failed to conceal the company name and contact details on the rear doors. There was a two tone – blue and white – Morris Oxford, and a white Vauxhall Victor with a bench seat in the front that could accommodate three people, and a column gear change to the side of the steering shaft. The most memorable  was a two door 1969 Ford Cortina Mk ll. That car was bling long before the term was coined and was the first of my cars to provoke a response from those who came upon it; always negative. It was hardly surprising. Despite being quite a large car there was only an aspirant 1300cc engine beneath the bonnet. Nonetheless, or perhaps because of the modest engine, its previous owner had invested what I surmised to be a considerable sum of money in making it appear to be more than the sum of its parts. They had fitted alloy racing wheels, and a black vinyl roof so that it resembled a cross between a convertible and one of those US ‘sedans’ popular in the 50s and 60s. The bodywork was sprayed in a lambent pearlescent purple, finished off with a white coach stripe from stem to stern about half way up the sides and a black fake fur rear parcel shelf and matching ashtray cover. All these modifications completed with care and precision. The car was flawless in every way, including the manner in which it extracted shock and outrage from all who saw it. 

I enjoyed driving that Mkll. Not because it was fast, or handled especially well: The measured pace at which I proceed prompted a former colleague to remark that I drove like “someone’s grandmother.” No, I enjoyed that Ford because it was comfortable, it soaked up the bumps and potholes like a sponge, and the driver’s window was at such a height as to make driving with it open, and my elbow rested there, with the radio on, almost soporific. More than that I liked it because it almost removed entirely the sensation of moving, which for me was and remains the real test of any car. I do not need to be reminded that I am travelling along a road. The experience should be as quiet, smooth and undemanding as humanely possible. What I had not anticipated though was the Ford’s effect on others. I doubt I would have enflamed any more anger, nurtured greater vitriol, had I shaved my head and tattooed the Nazi insignia on the tip of my nose. With undisguised expressions of bewilderment friends and colleagues repeatedly asked me if the cars was really mine, and I lost count of the times I was stopped by the police. Not, I should add, for any infringement of the Highway Code, but just because it was such a red rag to easily enraged officers of the law whom I daresay still take exception to young men driving the sort of garish vehicle they could not afford themselves. For reasons I have never been able to reconcile, those officers invariably wanted to see inside the car’s boot, as if therein lay the root of its demon seed. Nothing was ever found, and I never received anything more punitive than warning.

All of which was nothing compared to the reaction of my mother. Until that point she and I had shared a kind of familial indifference to cars. I think she viewed them in a similar vein as myself: As practical means of getting around and not to be given too much thought. Her insouciance  changed the first time I took the Mk ll home. I recall her remarking, in an offhand fashion over a cup of tea, that someone had parked the ugliest car she’d ever seen in front of our house. Going on to suggest it may have something to do with the new neighbours whom she insisted had questionable taste. That she didn’t like it was an understatement. She made me promise never to park it in front of the house, and it remains the only car I have ever owned that she refused, point blank, to get inside. After nine weeks of consistent police harassment, the incredulity of colleagues, and my mother’s  unswerving displeasure, oh, and I forgot to mention the countless Herberts in souped up bangers with exhaust pipes wider than  toilet wastes forever taking me on at traffic lights, I traded the Ford in for another Triumph  Herald, a white convertible and possibly the most ridiculous, unreliable and jinxed car I ever owned.  

Convertibles are different now. For one thing, they keep the water out. On a warm sunny day there was nothing finer than that white Herald convertible. There were ignition problems (it didn’t always start), and the previous owner had fitted it with ‘remould’ radial tyres that quite literally disintegrated on the A30 heading west one summer. Remoulds – subsequently  banned for obvious reasons – were half the price of new radial tyres because they came with a speed restriction: Sixty miles an hour. Any faster and they’d fall apart and like me you had to spend hours by the side of the road awaiting a lecture from a recovery team. It was on such a  trip that I discovered how hopeless the car was at keeping the elements out and the occupants dry. I had become accustomed to driving with just one functioning windscreen wiper, and I had constructed an ingenious way of deflecting the rainwater that poured in from the windscreen/roof sill: A 12 inch album cover paper clipped to the visor directed the water on to the offside window, and thence inside the door where it turned to rust. 

My girlfriend and I were a few miles into Dartmoor when we became away of a sloshing sound. It was if there was someone in the backseat taking a bath. When I pulled over to a stop the splashing ceased. We progressed like this for many miles before I could stand it no more and clambered into the back for a closer inspection. The carpets were wet, and there was water dripping off the roof. But more was to come. Behind the seat on the Herald there is a metal compartment into which the roof fits. Mine was completely full of water, to within a couple of inches from the top. Goldfish survive for years in less water.

The only time I will admit to anything like professional corruption came as result of my trading the Herald in for a cheaper, and older Morris Traveller, a car that was far more in tune with my desire for an unappealing vehicle. The Traveller was an estate version of Alec Issigonis’ 1952 Morris Minor. The automotive legend who went on to design the Mini, an icon of the swinging 60s,  had created the definitively British functional car.  Early Travellers shared the indestructible 1000cc Morris Minor engine with turn indicators that flew out of slits between the front and back windows like yellow hands. Taking its cue from American ‘ ‘station wagons’ of the 40s and 50s the rear estate section comprised seasoned English ash timber frames, with aluminium side and door panels. I think mine had been parked on the top of a cliff for long periods because while the driver side was solid as a rock I could push a finger through was remained of the ash on the near side. I wasn’t too concerned with the moss growing in the side window rails. My girlfriend said it had character and it effectively held the sliding glass windows in place.

My first and last attempt at automotive restoration came about by chance after a planning inquiry in Uxbridge I was reporting on for my local newspaper. Local residents (forever ‘up in arms’) were endeavouring to shut down a car breakers yard run by a man with a face so battered he might have been a bare knuckle fighter in a former life. For whatever reason I took a shine to the breaker and a strong dislike to the residents. After the inquiry, that ended with the plan for a more comprehensive assessment f the site, I approach the breaker   to inquire if he had any unwanted Morris Travellers on his site. He did, and the only payment he required from me if I were to remove the parts I required was a favourable report. It seemed a reasonable offer and thus I embarked upon a life of journalistic corruption.

The only thing that Mkll had in common with every car I have owned since, the notable exception being my current C-Class Estate, is it only had just the two doors.  I can’t be certain of when exactly I decided to only drive two door cars but I think it stems party from a conversation with a journalist I used to work with in Uxbridge called Michael Anders, and an article some years later by the sportswriter Richard Williams, then commenting on cars having made a name for himself writing about popular music. Michael was a bearded communist with a voice so low it almost touched the floor and a passion for Disque Blue cigarettes and utilitarian British cars. We never discussed it but I always suspected that his politics, intensely right-on and in tune with the post Paris 1968  revolutionary spirit, an obsession that both irritated and amused our news editor at the time, demanded he could only show enthusiasm for the sort of car most journalists wouldn’t be seen dead in.   Simply put, Michael loved the cars of the working man: Ford Anglias and Morris Minors. Mini vans (he was on his second when we met), and of course practically any MG, provided it was showing its age. Michael derived as much pleasure from keeping an inexpensive car on the road for the minimum outlay as he did from sitting behind the wheel; probably more. During one of our long sessions at a Youngs pub in Twickenham he convinced me that cars shouldn’t have more than two doors if they are to achieve automotive rectitude. Four doors, his theory went, unbalanced the lines that by rights should flow front the front like air in a wind tunnel.  It may have been the beer talking but it sank in.  

There is something about large, two door cars, those modified from what would otherwise be a often dull four door saloons,  above and beyond the fact that they discourage backseat passengers, and that is their name – coupes. What a delightful word for a car loaded with  continental style. A car for adults who appreciate comfort, a smooth ride on the long haul, and room in the back for the hound to stretch out. Not, I hasten to add pronounced, coupe as in a chicken ‘coup’, the way Americans pronounce the word. No, this coupe, is spoken the French way –  from the word meaning ‘to cut’ – with an accent over the ‘e’, signing the word off with a continental flourish. Coupe! 

I have owned three coupes, the first of which was a navy blue 1970 Volvo 121 Amazon, a car born into the era of Austin Allegros with the chrome and pizzazz of a Cadillac.

two doors better than four – the Volvo 121 Amazon

It was 13 years old when I bought it from a Volvo dealership in Twickenham for £550 but it looked like something from another age and drew comments wherever it went. In fact I would have now were it not for one major fault, the clutch. I have never driven a Route-master or a pantechnicon but I cannot imagine operating the clutch was any more arduous. Digging a spade into concrete is easier it all coming to a dramatic climax in Hampstead High Street when crossing ahead of a line of cars my left knee gave out under clutch pressure and I had to get myself home using my right leg for everything: changing gear, accelerating and braking. Next stop an automatic.

The second coupe was the aforementioned Mercedes Benz 280CE, discovered on the forecourt of used car dealership near Worthing. When Sade, whom I worked with for a time in the 1980s, had made enough money to replace her Wolseley she asked me for suggestions in my capacity as motoring correspondent for Elle and Arena. I suggested a 280CE directing her to a stunning pearlescent model I’d stumbled upon in Mayfair. She bought, apparently terrifying the salesmen on a pedal to the metal test drive around the West End. Of course I had to have one too. Passing the one I eventually bought my mother, still in recovery from the Mkll Ford Cortina, remarked from the back seat of the Volvo, “isn’t that one of the cars you like?”

My last coupe, before getting old and sensible was a two litre Peugeot 406 coupe. With less power than a spin dryer I challenge anyone to nominate a better looking car beneath the £30,000 price ceiling? Indeed mine cost much less. 

What all French cars have in style is only equalled by the speed of their depreciation. Cars wear out, like carpets and are superseded like computers. It’s just more startling with French cars. My dark blue coupe, with full black leather interior was a real beauty, 18 months old and still under warranty when I signed the deal and handed over just £10,500 for it. The manager of the Jaguar dealership in Waltham Upon Thames, a thick set man with wavy fair hair, where it had been part exchanged, seemed unhappy to part with such a head turner for so little money. Yet it was the price set by Classes’ Guide, although it didn’t square with him and for a fractious half an hour he and a supplicant junior salesman attempted to sell me a raft of products from exterior and interior to ‘body guard’, and breakdown cover. He became  quite shirty when I declined them all. It reminded me of a time in Istanbul when a weft of carpet salesmen locked the door and made it clear I wasn’t going to be allowed off the premises without buying a rug. Fortunately the car salesmen were less forceful and eventually ran out of spurious reasons for me protecting the coupe’s upholstery and paintwork. If there had been an anti depreciation programme I may have been tempted. I sold it eight years later, still looking a million dollars for £600 to the teenage son of a good friend who took six months to trash it. 

All I have omitted from the list is an orange VW Beetle, and a citrus coloured Mini both of which I wrecked in collisions that were all my fault, a maroon Morris Oxford that I had to start each day with a crank handle (for younger readers this is an iron handle inserted into a slot in the front bumper that with effort turns the engine over in the hope it will

Fiat Panda 4×4 – my expression says all there is to say about comfort

eventually fire) and, a white 4×4 Fiat Panda, possibly the most uncomfortable car ever built despite only having two doors, and a beige Ford Fiesta company car during my short stay at Epic Records. Not a lot of babe magnets there. 

I wonder if my indifference to cutting edge technology, in any walk of life, be it cars, sound systems, or footwear,  is a failing?  Whilst spending the greater part of my working life advocating for others what best to buy in cars, music, restaurants, holidays, gadgets and clothes, I frankly cannot think of anything I would rather do less myself than shop.  So much so I wasn’t even involved in the purchase of blue C200, unquestionably the most expensive car I have ever owned. In Hamburg to see Fulham lose the Europe Cup to Atletico Madrid my former school buddy David texted me a photograph with a simple question. “Want it?” It looked ok so I said yes. After all, it’s only a car. More importantly,  Fulham lost.

written October 2013 updated and revised June 2020

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coronavirus – an April, May and June view from Padstow

June 12, 2020

With everyone and his dog claiming that ‘lockdown’ is somehow making us better more caring people with an enhanced sense of community is overlooking the bald fact that it’s also turning us into caricatures. Today Kim and Asta and I drove to Bodmin for a ‘click and collect’ at Morrisons. The reason we opted to go there rather than Truro’s Waitrose, which as anyone who has been there this past 12 weeks will know is the equivalent of a grocery spa it’s so orderly and relaxed, is because Kim has a passion for for Thompson Punjana tea and Morrisons’ own richly glutinous ‘The Best’ balsamic vinegar. Last night, before the online shopping deadline for our 10-11am collect slot we added pine nuts, there being a pasta basil pesto on the ‘lockdown’ menu. So there we are, both in wax cotton coats (the forecast was rain), in a Mercedes Benz with possibly the loveliest dog in the county, and smiling young woman who pushed the trolley with our goods to the car explained that some items were out of stock and another had to be replaced. No Clairette du Languedoc wine. What! And the halloumi was exchanged for another brand and one of the two bottles of balsamic vinegar had to be exchanged for a ameliorated version as she only had just the one bottle of the one we wanted. “But that’s why we’re shopping here,” I blurted out whilst recognising the sort of person I would under normal circumstances be laughing at. The young woman gave nothing away and apologised before adding that the only item they didn’t have and couldn’t substitute with an alternative was the pine nuts. “What yelled Kim.” I know I told her, the wrong balsamic vinegar, no Paul Mas wine and now no pine nuts. What is the world coming too? “And what are we turning into?” said Kim.

May 24, 2020

Another example of Padstow’s attitude towards social distancing. Kim and Asta are out for their early afternoon stroll along Sarah’s Lane. Two women approach. Asta is plodding along as usual meaning Kim can’t get far enough away as the women get nearer. One woman, reading the situation, steps aside while the other brushes past just inches away. Kim didn’t have a ruler with her for some reason but the woman was well within the two metre guidelines. Kim thanked the other woman but suggested the other could have made more room. The response. “Fuck off.” When Kim, without swearing or raising her voice, replied that that wasn’t very nice, while acknowledging her more responsible friend the woman blurted “I don’t know why people like that (Kim) want to come out if they’re afraid.” Yet more evidence that Covid 19 is bringing out the best in people.

May 20, 2020

I’m starting to think second home owners in Rock know something we on this side don’t.  As of the weekend there wasn’t a single boat on the moorings on the other side of the river. By lunchtime today there are over 30 with speedboats cruising up to Tregirls beach. This morning was spectacular. Warm and radiant sunshine despite a brisk southerly wind. I counted ten aircraft contrails overhead and numerous holidaymakers on the beach. The building sites that now pepper the town seem to be up to full speed and as Kim pointed out traffic on Sarah’s Lane seems almost back to normal.

May 15, 2020

The ‘R’ rate by which we will know if the coronavirus is spreading is getting higher in Cornwall. It’s not surprising though. In Waitrose in Truro the 30 customers inside (the maximum admitted at any one time) were all courteous and politely keeping their distance, while here in Padstow and in supermarkets in Wadebridge it is as if nothing of concern was going on; people pushing past and leaning across as though  desperate to catch and spread the dreaded infection. Even more alarming is the fact that while west country politicians and tourism managers insist the county is closed to all but those who live here they are happy to send their council employees out two and three inside a cramped vehicle cab to empty street dustbins. The streets here in Padstow have never been cleaner in all the 27 years Kim and I have been coming here and yet the council, so anti people who live beyond The Tamar, is happy to despatch street cleaning lorries with two to a cab sat closer to each other than if they were sharing a bed. This virus is heading our way and it won’t be wealthy second home owners and their guests spreading it, it will be local people; those who have to flout social distancing due to work and others who appear to see it as someone else’s pandemic.

May 14, 2020

The day is bright but the wind still sharp. The buzzard still circles above Tregirls and Kim and I spotted a pointy beaked Nuthatch on the ancient bridge by Prideaux.

May 13, 2020

It’s clear and bright and even a bit warm in sheltered sunshine but the wind is icy. Strong too and doubtless why the season’s first dinghy sailors and windsurfers have appeared.

I’m starting to think local people have given up on social distancing. I guess they figure that being 161st in the UK league table (dropping from 154th) the chances of them catching Covid 19 are a million to one. Kim and I are still doing our bit to keep local people (and ourselves) alive, despite the odd looks we get.

May 12, 2020

Walking towards Tregirls an old man with white hair and what looked like a pair of boxer shorts looked at Asta and us and said “I haven’t seen you before.” Thats funny, I remarked, I haven’t seen you before either. “Well,” he replied inhaling sharply the way unpleasant ill informed pompous idiots tend to do, “I live here.” So do I, I said, to which he said “that’s alright then,” – whatever in the world that was supposed to mean. Far from making us better, more compassionate, thoughtful, supportive and neighbourly this pandemic is reverting us to our genetic nature; tribal, and finger pointing.

May 11, 2020

The government’s relaxation of lockdown – ‘stay alert’ – has had an immediate effect. We have had three applications to stay with us in 24 hours. If any local person is reading this keep your hair on. We have no intention of accepting bookings until the country gets the all clear, although I suspect I’ll be dead and buried before that happens.  There are more day trippers (I suppose they could be the reviled second home owners) evident by the increase in expensive cars prowling the town, many with personalised number plates, reminding me of the black cab driver in London who, when asked why he doesn’t have a ‘white’ black cab he looked in the rear view mirror and remarked “it’d be like driving around with my bollocks out.” Point taken.

May 9, 2020

I’m starting to feel sorry for day trippers and holidaymakers going out of their way to be friendly. Walking down to Tregirls this morning, a walk Kim and I have done, I don’t know, maybe 3000 times in 27 years, we were met by people coming the other way. We stepped aside as we always do and indicated that the elderly lady approaching us could slow down as there was no hurry. As she passed us she said the normally goes the other way. When the couple some yards behind her arrived at the same passing spot and I commented that it’s easier going downhill  the woman smiled and remarked that she too has walked the other way like us,  everyday for years. Needless to say neither Kim nor I have ever seen any of them before.

May 8, 2020

Been a week for birds. First a pair of Arctic Terns fishing off Tregirls, followed by a pair of Cormorants. Then a Falcon and Buzzard and this morning one, or possibly two, Cuckoos, under the bridge past Prideaux Place close to where the photograph below was taken. Happily the longer this ‘lockdown’ continues and the more time people have on their hands, the fewer  Kim and I see on our morning walk. It’s back to the hardcore dog walkers, amounting to never more than six people.

Increasingly sloppy social distancing at the supermarket, despite prompts by long suffering staff to follow customers to follow the rules,  finished me off today. But just as I pledged to cycle or drive to Wadebridge for my newspaper Kim related Sarah’s admiration for how Emma has organised things at the Spa. Hygienic screens keep staff and customers apart with a maximum of just two customers at any given time.

May 7, 2020

There is a bank holiday on Friday that is being linked in with VE (Victory in Europe) Day. It doesn’t matters that dozens, if not hundreds, of old campaigners and their family are dying in care homes the free and healthy are decorating their homes with Union Flags, made of plastic and doubtless produced in China. There are several decked thus in Dennis Road and I’ve spotted one in Sarah’s Lane.

The turn out for the NHS was the best yet with quite a throng at the far end of the road and  for the first time a small gathering outside the cottages to our rear. What has been a good excuse for Asta to howl at the moon – tonight a ‘Super Moon’ sadly partly obscured by clouds, was brought to an abrupt end when someone nearby in their enthusiasm for the NHS and their desire to stage a most spectacular show of support shot a flare above the town that had our pup running for cover.

May 6, 2020

The town seems to have settled into a sloppy sort of self isolation. Old people keeping crashing into me at the supermarket but nobody is talking about second home owners anymore and the artistic among us have stopped scrawling NHS in giant letters on the beach along with ‘go home’. It feels like the fad of hatred is wearing off.

May 4, 2020

Another call his morning about small mindedness and social intolerance. The car of a young woman who moved into an apartment nearby maybe two months ago woke up  to find paint poured  over her car and the gates to her carpark padlocked. The perpetrator clearly some ignorant hothead objecting to out-of-towners. Of course, the young woman is a nurse working on the Covid frontline at Treliske, in Truro during the pandemic.

It’s not all dismal. Lisa Tutton, married to Tim son of Dee and my old sadly departed great friend John, emerged from the Memorial Hall opposite the quay carpark for a chat. She was wearing surgical gloves and a plastic apron because she is co-ordinating the distribution of hot meals and essential foodstuffs for dozens of local people confined to their homes for a variety of reasons: age; social distancing; illness. She says that the food is being cooked by a number of top chefs ‘furloughed’ during the pandemic. Thanks to her dedication and cool head the operation is ticking over with military precision.

May 3, 2020

I’m no fan of Gordon Ramsey but he’s certainly wound up a lot of people around here. It seems he and his family are ‘self isolating’ somewhere close to the two homes he is having built overlooking Porthilly. Funny how nobody bats an eyelid when Cornwall Council reveals that due to Brexit it will £70 million a year worse off (that being the sum it receives annually from the EU) but get into a stew because a chef with  predilection for swearing on camera is across the water behind closed doors. Another day another friend’s birthday. Kim and I left her present on her front lawn and bade her well.

May 1, 2020

May Day and no May Pole, and no Osses. Tall cumulous clouds teeter in the stillness and the sun bright and warm. Summer certainly ‘is a comin”. There are few people in the streets  either in full whites or subtly flying their red or blue colours.  The beach was a bit busier than usual and by late morning there are sporadic bursts of drum and accordion.

April 30, 2020

A woman who lives somewhere in Cornwall and has a guest house or b&b was the first member of the public to be able to put a question to the PM at his 5pm meeting with the media.  She was anxious that relaxing the lockdown would mean holidaymakers coming into the county and infecting people. Why didn’t the PM or his health experts point out that Cornwall, and other parts of the West Country were packed with holidaymakers up to and beyond the February half term, from towns all over the country, and yet despite this huge influx Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly is 154th in the league table of nationwide coronavirus infections.

I tried once more to have a photograph of mine shown during the weather segment of Spotlight Southwest. I received an email from someone at the BBC saying he liked my photograph of the Cant Hill through a lilac branch. It wasn’t used.

April 28, 2020

My new neighbours are more clued into Padstow than I. One of them called to me to tell me a wet fish van was selling directly to residents, parked about halfway along Dennis Road. It’s the man who bought Mr.Pucky out some years ago when he used to sell from his van in Duke Street near Hillside. I bought some mackerel that Kim prepared as tempura using a recipe she learnt from Rick Stein maybe 20 years ago.

April 25, 2020

There is an uncorroborated story that two takeaway outlets in town have been threatened by people who believe that by being open they are encouraging Covid-19 infested holidaymakers.

April 21, 2020

We watched a pair of Common Terns diving into the sea off Tregirls this morning, oblivious to a pair of jet black Cormorants skimming the surface nearby at high speed. There were even less people today out and about until we encountered a local b&b host on Trigg Troll. Asta went happily up to his dog ignoring Kim’s pleas to follow us. The dog’s owner, swarthy and big, told her she “should keep the bloody dog on a lead.” I told him not to swear at my wife. “And you can shut your mouth,” he replied to which I repeated the same to him. I’ve seen him around Padstow. He looked at me before turning and walking off. The fact he didn’t instruct me to ‘go home’ suggests he knows who I am. I’ll add him to the list.

fish at Trevisker

With catches not going abroad or to restaurants fishermen are giving the people who live hereabouts a chance to buy fish straight off the boats. I got a call to say someone was selling crabs and lobster on the quay at Padstow last week and this afternoon some of the Trevisker staff were doing a good job with hake and mackerel and shellfish. I bought a hake as long as my arm that was filleted and should provide four generous servings. Price: £10.00.

April 19, 2020

It’s cold and grey and the sand is soft on Tregirls and hard going.  We thought that as this lockdown progressed more and more people would venture to the beach for exercise or to walk their dogs. In fact, the opposite has happened. In the course of the month fewer people venture as far as the beach. We never see more than half a dozen regular faces. Perhaps lockdown is just an excuse to stay in bed longer. By the time I set off for Truro the sun had come out. I took my favourite route through Ladock, across the A30 at Fraddon.  I was making for Waitrose to buy a dear friend some chocolates for her birthday and quite prepared to be confronted by a policeman on route. I shouldn’t have worried. I don’t think I counted two dozen cars there and back.

April 17, 2020

If there is any good news in all of this Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly is the 154th most infected region in the United Kingdom, with a total of 349 cases out of total population of 565,968. Despite this people are still complaining bitterly when someone they don’t recognise passes through town. Today’s wildlife count included a rabbit in Moyle Road, a Merlin Falcon high over St.George’s Well, and a pair of Red Legged Partridges on my neighbour’s front lawn.

returning to Padstow

April 16, 2020.

It’s become quite a thing on Thursday evenings at 8pm for many of the locals at the other end of Dennis Road to assemble in their front gardens for the men and women on the front line of this damn virus. They shout across the street at each other and clap and sing support over glasses of intoxicating liquor. The same local people still noticeably absent from the small yet meaningful act of support and appreciation.

April 14, 2020

Another warm, sunny day. You can hear the ‘lockdown’ silence. The morning walk has become something of a wood gathering expedition on Tregirls Beach. Asta likes to help carrying good size branches all the way to Chapel Style before dropping them at the bottom of the steps to Trigg Troll.

April 13, 2020

There are some holidaymakers around despite the best efforts of the government and Cornwall Council and the police to put them off. We see them on our walk in the morning visibly sheepish and evidently feeling unwelcome. We’re still getting scowls from local people who don’t recognise us. A group crowded around a farm vehicle to chat with the driver and giggled when I excused myself clearly looking for a clear passage past them for Kim, Asta and myself. Why are people so difficult? I had to do a small amount of shopping this morning (fruit) and had to duck and dodge and weave my way around the store. It’s as if people were prepared to keep to social distancing rules for the a week or two but because they are still alive they’re past caring. It was a chilling experience more so as the majority of those flouting social distancing were sixty. Maybe they’re behind Cummings’ ‘herd immunity’ solution?

April 12, 2020

Easter Sunday

I didn’t sleep much last night. Despite the alcohol I think I am succumbing to the melancholia that is gripping so many. Another day much the same as the last. The same routine and the only joy eating. To take my mind of ‘it’ this is another bright hot day with the blackthorn  looking like a dusting of snow. I’ve never been much of one for Easter. The chocolate is fine but you can keep the rest of it. Which is pretty much what everyone has done, the Archbishop of Canterbury giving his Easter sermon to a camera from his empty kitchen. I took some chocolates around to our elegant friend in the old town knocking on her door and then nipping back to the car. She looked splendid and I know she enjoys chocs. She asked me if I thought the world would be different if and when all of this ends? I replied that if doctors and nurses and the people behind the tills in supermarkets are more appreciated and valued by society then that will be a step in the right direction. On the way home I noticed another friend’s window open and stopped to have a shouting conversation with her across her front lawn. The day ends with the news that there have been 10,000 deaths from Covid-19 in the UK. How many would still be alive if our government hadn’t wasted time flirting with the prime minister’s advisor’s ‘herd immunity’ concept in which only the strong survive and few oldies die and the economy remains largely untouched? The funerals are a testament to a lost month. Oh and the tories reduced the pandemic budget set up by the last Labour administration by a third. I still have friends who claim the whole pandemic is overblown and that we lose between 10 and 20,000 to flu each year. Maybe so but the Covid-19 death toll is still climbing and how many doctyors and nurses and bus drivers and care workers die of flu each year?

April 10, 2020

Good Friday.

April 9, 2020

Almost a thousand have died of Covid-19 in the UK over the past 24 hours. Our prime minister remains in intensive care and the talk is of Britain expected to have the highest death toll of the virus in Europe: the high number of fatalities due to our woeful tory government wasting a month discussing ‘herd immunity’, only backing off when it realised that such a course of inaction would result in huge numbers of fatalities. Another beautiful, sunny, hot, still day we decided, being short of veg, to drive to the farm shed near St.Eval. I felt uncomfortable all the way in the light of our ‘go home’ message and noticed a number of people giving the car  second and third glances. On route we stopped at Mother Ivy’s Bay for Asta and us to stretch our legs. There were four or five surfers on Constantine and some joggers. For the first time this week the supermarket in Padstow was quite busy, perhaps a sign that some are ignoring the advice to remain at home. Maybe I should go and scrawl ‘go home’ on their cars and ignore the fact that some of the cars may belong to doctors and nurses.

April 8, 2020

It had to happen. We had our first ‘Go Home’ instruction daubed into the dirt on to the front passenger  window. We can’t be certain when it was done but probably while the car was parked up close to the trough near Prideaux Place where we leave it during our morning walk. I’ve noticed people taking a second glance at us either near the supermarket or on the morning walk and wondered when one of them would put two and two together and mount a blinkered high horse?

April 5, 2020

Bumped into some friends walking Asta this morning who said they have had word from a nurse at Treliske that the hospital is fast approaching meltdown. The clear implication is that the authorities, rightly or wrongly, are not giving us the full story.   It was my birthday today- the worst and best I’ve ever had. So many old friends and friends of friends and relatives of friends made contact. We’re all in the same boat, fearful of the unknown and where this virus thing is headed? My old friend Tim, who I went with to journalism college in Portsmouth in the seventies, summed up the ‘reaching out’ that is going on succinctly: “you can’t make new old friends.”

Notable among a raft of birthday presents from whiskey to Branston Pickle, a silk pocket

Finchley backpack

handkerchief and After Eight Mints was a backpack, from my sister, made of recycled plastic bottles sourced on Britain’s beaches.  The Finchley from a range made by a young London company called Roka was made from recycled plastic bottles that would otherwise have gone into landfill;  12 to 15 plastic bottles in each bag. It has shoulder and hand carrying straps with a chunky zip close and cleverly designed compartments inside.  It’s the perfect bag to take to the grocery store on the bike, or as a picnic bag when we’re finally let out of lockdown. Mine’s blue but the Finchley, like the other rucksacks, body bags and wallets in the range, is available in more colours than you can shake a stick it.

April 3, 2020

We left some garden vegetables with an elderly friend of ours in town today. We stayed in the car and she only opened her front door when we yelled and beeped the horn. She looked well but I think this isolation and absence of human contact is becoming a strain on her.  She seemed lost and bemused, her eyes devoid of their usual seductive sparkle. And this is only the beginning. They are talking now of this current lockdown lasting until the end of May.

We drove to Morrison’s in Bodmin, seven days since our last big shop. The same queuing system was in place and most of the customers were happy to keep their distance. But what’s happened to the staff? With the exception of those on the door and behind the tills the staff were worryingly casual; joking, laughing and frequently stepping well within the two metre social isolation zone. It’s as if they bored with the rules and have gone beyond caring.

April 1, 2020

It’s still cold with a sharp north easterly wind. Despite conditions that are tough on birds migrating north many thousands of miles Kim spotted a pair of swallows skitting and zig-zagging above Trig Troll this morning. They’re early and thankfully oblivious to the blight that has brought two thirds of the world to a standstill. Easter is only ten days away and the talk around town now is of unwanted holidaymakers. Those we come across on our walk clearly sense the animosity and acknowledge us with their heads turned down.

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coronavirus – a March view from Padstow

Monday March 30, 2020

A sign of the loneliness this death is bringing came to Dennis Road this morning. A loved, admired and respected member of the community Rosemary Brinham was take from her home, Wingfield House, in Dennis Lane, to the chapel of rest early this morning. Social distancing guidelines meant non of the many who had wanted to pay their respects could attend the service at the crematorium. Our friend from Treverbyn Road and another stood on the corner to see Rose off.

Sunday March 29. 2020.

Deaths in the UK now well over 1000 and the government, for what it’s worth, is bracing the public for many more. The figures range from 7000 to 20,000 in the coming month. Some experts are say this lockdown could extend until June. We tried registering for home grocery deliveries with Morrison’s, Sainsbury, and Tesco without luck. The first two are not accepting new home delivery customers and the Tesco website said there was no available delivery slot in the foreseeable future. Like it or no we’ll still have to shop in person.

Saturday March 28, 2020

There is a debate about how far we are permitted to go to get our exercise, and walk the dog? We’re still going to Lellizzick but we are now one of just maybe two cars there. It’s said we risk a road traffic incident and thereby could put unnecessary strain on the NHS. The worst that could happen on a slow four and a bit mile round trip is a prang. But what about all the cyclists that have appeared? Bikers who don’t get their bicycles out more that a couple of times a year are now freewheeling through town and country roads without a care in the world. If anyone risks casing the NHS unnecessary work it’s them. I suppose we’ll have to change our routine if only not to stick out like sore thumbs.  Friends in London all say the same thing – we’re better off where we are.

Friday March 27, 2020.

This coronavirus thing is almost bearable with the weather the way it is. Another bright spring day with a smattering of alto cumulus clouds. The word is it’s going get a lot colder. All the talk today is about whether people should be able to get into their cars to take the dog for a walk. We could walk to Tregirls from Dennis Road but it’s quite a way. Each day there have been less cars parked up at Lellizzick. On the way back I noticed the Farm Shop is still open. Both the prime minister and the health secretary have the virus. Spike says this thing is getting serious.

Thursday March 26, 2020.

The death toll today is 465. 70,000 have the virus in the US. By 6pm today 100 people had died of it in New York,Kim and I drove to Bodmin to shop for the week. Another beautiful, warm spring day with a faultless blue sky. The road was empty and so too the car park at Morrisons. We grabbed a trolley each, split our shopping list in two and joined the 20 or so strong queue, each two metres apart, waiting to be admitted into the store one at a time. I needed a pee at the same time as another customer. We approached the gents and looked warily at each other. I waited outside and he thanked me. We found most of the things we wanted but when it came to paying a member of staff said I would have take one of the four bottles of wine out of my trolley. Three bottles each a maximum. She said they were open the next morning at 7am and I couldn’t drink all four bottles by then anyway. Little does she know me. Petrol prices have plummeted. By nearly 40p said Kim. It made sense to fill up. Back at The Red House Kim washed every item we’d bought.  Tonight they announced 4000 dead in France and 8000 in Italy. In the US lockdown has ramped the unemployment total to over three million. At 8pm we joined just a handful of others outside and applaud all NHS staff. It was a poor turnout at my end of town. I only counted four others apart from ourselves. Sarah at the Gallery said it was very moving to hear the applause rippling down from the top of town where more homes are actually lived in. There was an idiot getting drunk in his garden this afternoon, dancing and playing loud music. No sign of him when the country was united in saying thank you to the nurses and doctors risking their lives.

Wednesday March 25, 2020.

The UK death toll is 411. It was around 30 last week. Kim is thinking about food supplies and we have dug up part of the back lawn to install a vegetable patch. The only problem we discover is that all the garden centres are closed so we can’t by either plants of seeds. To cheer me up Rob tells me to watch a Chet Baker at Ronnie Scotts show on You Tube. I do and it doesn’t cheer me up but its beautiful. I receive a text from my old boss in Gloucestershire. She says the whole family is isolated on the farm and that her old man is washing by hand every grocery item delivered. There is an item on the news about Waitrose limiting the number of shoppers into its supermarkets. I like the idea and think maybe we’ll go there tomorrow. A text from Spike reads: Prince Charles is isolating at Balmoral with Covid-19. Prince Andrew is isolating Windsor with Jennifer-14.

Tuesday March 24, 2020

A friend from London has come down insisting she will head straight back if she shows the slightest sign of the illness, not wishing to be a strain on an overstretched Cornwall NHS. We saw our first intercontinental jet overhead for the first time in days. Looking up on Tregirls Kim pointed out that there was not a single contrail where normally there are several criss-crossing the sky. The valley behind Tregirls leading to Lellizzick is drying out but still resembles the Everglades. The weather is sublime and today was the first day all year I haven’t worn a winter coat. There are more lights on in Rock. There are a few speedboats too and  a couple of light aircraft breaking the unnatural Covid-19 silence. All but one of the building projects on Dennis Road has come to a standstill. Where the road is normally bumper-to-bumper with parked cars there are less than a dozen now. Almost no pedestrians and a silence you can almost hear. Each day reminds me of Sunday afternoons in the Sixties when the shops were closed and most people stayed at home.

Tregirls Everglades

Monday March 23, 2020

There is a sign on the door of the Tesco stating that violent language directed at staff will not be tolerated. There is a taped ‘isolation’ grid on the floor in front of the customer services counter where I often exchange my Guardian voucher for a copy of the newspaper. I mention the notice on the door to the women behind the counter (when I move towards the counter she moves back and when she moves forward I am instructed to move back) who says there was an argument with a customer who threw something at a member of staff.

Sunday March 22, 2020

My friend in Cross Street sounded well on the phone today. She managed a laugh and we agreed to stay in touch. The tide was out when Kim, Asta and I arrived at Tregirls. Someone had written in the sand, in big letters, ‘Holidaymakers Go Home’. I counted 60 on the beach at Rock. The keeping our distance message is starting to get home with people we stopped to chat with a god two metres away. The numbers of people with coronavirus in Cornwall remains in single figures while the talk is of an epidemic in London. Our friends in Kentish Town are all well and getting used to living 24/7 cheek-by-jowl in a small house. My friend said he felt uneasy with the crowds on Hampstead Heath. A friend a short distance away from us emailed to say her ex-husband, living in care hundreds of miles away, has died of Covid-19. It’s getting closer.

Saturday March 21, 2020.

Spike thinks he has Covid-19, but then again he always thinks he has every illness under the sun. A dear friend in Padstow told me she and her London friend have agreed that he shouldn’t come down. The friend thinks people here will disapprove. I think they’re right. This evening, after dark, I took a drive around Padstow to see the effect of the government’s pub/restaurant/hotel closure edict. There was a solitary vehicle parked in the car park in front of The Seafood Restaurant, which was of course closed. The harbour was in darkness with a solitary pedestrian. I drove along Lanadwell Street, across Middle Street and down Duke Street; all in darkness. The pizza takeaway and Chip Ahoy were the only businesses open with two customers at each. No other vehicles moving.

Friday March 20, 2020

It’s official. Having previously only advised pubs and restaurants and other hospitality businesses to close at tonight’s government press conference our prime minister, waving his arms about as ever, insisted they must all close tonight to contain the virus. It’s hard to imagine a world without pubs. It’s the end of my Friday evening pint and cigar outside The Old Ship. We are being told to remain at home and avoid contact with people outside our immediate family. This almost certainly means the end of our regular Saturday night dressed up wine sessions in Cross Street. We agree to discuss the situation tomorrow.

springtime at Lellizzick

Thursday March 19, 2020.

Another line of panic buyers with trolleys this morning. I go to the supermarket to get my Guardian and people, especially the elderly, don’t think twice about invading someone’s space. I’m getting calls and texts from friends up country telling me that second home owners are not welcome in Cornwall. I call my dear friend in Southwold who echoes the words of people hereabouts angry, at the number of people ‘self isolating’ in the community that will be under pressure if they become ill and put extra strain on the tory underfunded NHS. Tonight a Cornwall councillor and tourism manager appealed to holidaymakers and second home owners alike to stay away. I’ve heard through the grapevine that May Day has been cancelled.

Wednesday March 18, 2020

There seems to be some sort of denial in the air, that coronavirus and Covid-19 are a figment of some conspiratorial imagination. There are no extra precautions at the Health Centre Centre and plenty of close, sometimes intimate contact. Despite this all the talk is about second home owners. At the supermarket the staff are talking about a queue of people outside when it opened up at 7am this morning, nearly all they said were outsiders. There is unconfirmed talk of a cluster of Covid-19 patients in Polzeath.

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