Follow me, I’m a friend of the Pastons

If you saw someone wandering around Norwich on 15 September with about 16 people in tow, it was probably me. To be honest, it could have been any number of official City Guides, but they would have known what they were doing. For me it was a one-off Heritage event, and I had been plunged into it almost by accident.

I am a trustee of the Paston Heritage Society – in fact the only such trustee living in Norwich; so it falls to me quite often to introduce visitors to the various Paston-related sites in the city. (If you don’t know who the Pastons were, I refer you to; there is also a Facebook page.)

Recently, as the more alert Norwich-dwellers will know, there has been an extensive  Castle Museum exhibition on The Paston Treasure – it finishes this weekend (September 23). There has also been a more general, highly informative exhibition in St Peter Hungate, which continues until November. One of the spin-offs from this was my walk, which was inserted when something much more exciting was cancelled. I cannot reveal what it would have been. If I did, I would have to kill you.

I was a little concerned about how many sites I could include in the advertised 45 minutes. I was also slightly worried about whether I would be blamed if someone fell under a bus or was flattened by a cyclist, but I did warn them about it beforehand. They were a cheery bunch, and took full responsibility.

One of the problems with the Pastons was that they did not restrict themselves to a small part of Norwich – an area with a 45-minute radius of the Castle, for example. But we did what we could, taking in the main areas, such as St Andrew’s Hall, St Peter Hungate, Elm Hill and those ruins behind the Cathedral. We also slipped by the Guildhall, and stood for a while on Whitefriars Bridge. We ended up in front of the Cathedral after 90 minutes, having lost a few people on the way (all for very good reasons).

So what did we miss?  Mainly the Music House – the oldest house in Norwich, owned by the Pastons in the 16th century and now containing a Paston Room; and Dragon Hall, created originally by their friend, the equally famous Robert Toppes. But other sites of interest to Paston-lovers are scattered not only throughout Norwich but throughout the entire county, from Paston itself across to Appleton and taking in such beautiful buildings as (part of) Oxnead Hall and Barningham Hall.

As relaxation the following day I sat with my wife in St Augustine’s Church, which has nothing to do with the Pastons (as far as we know), but which is the church where I am a member. The building itself is owned by the Churches Conservation  Trust, and the church hall is used for worship. But on heritage days the church is open to visitors, and the experience is always interesting. This year I met someone who was born in the same place as I was – Earlham Hall.

Afterwards I wrote the poem that appears below.

Canada – where the light gets in, and the occasional bear

For my birthday my son gave me a book called The World Needs More Canada. He handed it to me while we were in Canada on holiday, so that I could test the truth of it.

On the face of it, the idea seems unlikely. The world already has a great deal of Canada: it is the second biggest country in the world (after Russia, since you ask). If you travel from London by air to Vancouver – on the west coast – by the time you reach Newfoundland, on the east, you are about halfway there.

I have been to Vancouver once, and to the Rockies twice. The city is beautiful, and the mountains spectacular. The Icefield Parkway, from Banff to Jasper, is the most sensational road I have ever travelled on. It’s too far away, of course, but that is not entirely Canada’s fault.

I have been to other parts of Canada, such as Montreal, Ottawa, Winnipeg, Regina, Edmonton and Calgary, and I loved them all – a feeling that is partly to do with the people, who are extremely relaxed about everything except stopping at Stop signs. They show great understanding, except about the nature of roundabouts. And they smile a lot.

But most of my time in Canada has been spent in Ontario, which in my opinion is greatly undervalued. Toronto itself is an entertaining and pleasant city, especially by the lake, although it  struggles to accommodate all the vehicles that want to get in there (or out again). Its Highway 401 is a legendary road, 18 lanes wide at one point, carrying up to half a million vehicles a day. It was the first road I drove on in Canada, and the first time I had driven an automatic car. It was a memorable experience. I would commend it to those who find the new Northern Distributor Road in Norwich a challenging day out.

Further west, north and east, Ontario quietens down. It quietens down south as well, but that’s because if you go south you’re in Lake Ontario. We generally stay with friends in Caledon, which is close to the Niagara Escarpment, with its rolling country roads organised in amusing grids. Despite the woods, there is a great feeling of space and openness, and there’s always the chance of running into a coyote, or a bear. Just the one bear, which appears to be lost. It made the local paper.

Yes, there is wildlife. Where we stayed there were snapping turtles and chipmunks, geese and the occasional (non-poisonous) snake. But all the wildlife is Canadian, and therefore good-natured.

Did I mention the wineries? Canadian wine is surprisingly good, and so are the restaurants. Did I mention the malls? They’re big – so big, in fact that walking clubs use them before they open for business. Did I mention the farm shops? I could go on. Did I mention Penetanguishene?

In short, I concur with the book in question, which covered the proposition thoroughly, with numerous quotes from almost everyone except Leonard Cohen who, to be fair, is dead. I presume they left it too late to ask him.  Canada – that’s where the light gets in. That’s what he would have said. Probably.

The very model of a G & S enthusiast

I was born in Norwich, but between the ages of five and eleven I lived in Coventry, about as far as you can get from the sea in this country. Not that I was aware of that at the time. I’m not sure I was aware of very much except my immediate little circle of activity, which centred on Stivichall School. This was (and still is) pronounced Sty-shull – a fact that rather complicated life when I came back to Norwich in 1956, after the death of my father,  and went to the City of Norwich School.

My new teachers had to make a note of my old school, and they rather expected something like Lakenham, Earlham, Costessey or a name equally easy to pronounce and spell (for them). Stivichall rather stumped them – and embarrassed me, because of course I had to spell it.

When you’re just starting secondary school, the last thing you want to do is stand out, but I had no alternative. All those other eleven-year-old boys were strangers to me, and I was now even stranger to them. Who was this lad from a school they’d never heard of? Why did he have to spell it? I don’t remember ever being bullied – just feeling an outsider, something that I suspect has never really left me.

I was befriended, however, by a boy named Fred Riches, who turned out to play a big part in my life. Later, he introduced me to my wife, and was best man at our wedding. We were out of touch for a while, but now see each other fairly regularly. Like my wife, he became a primary school head teacher and then took on other educational roles.

He also developed  a lifelong love of Gilbert and Sullivan and sang in the school performances of their operas every Christmas. Despite being self-effacing, he was gifted and talented in that area (as in quite a few others). I too developed a love of G & S, despite being much too shy to get up on stage. I just loved the brilliant word-play of Gilbert and the ingenious way that Sullivan wove his music around it.

Last month I got a fresh taste of it when Fred took part in the latest CNS “Class of 61” reunion. These get-togethers – looking back to our year in what was then the fifth form, where we took what were then known as GCEs – were started by a couple of CNS old boys, Adrian O’dell and Tony Friedlander, a few years ago.

On each occasion it has become customary for one of our number to talk about his life, which is a lot more interesting than it sounds. One of us worked at CERN, for instance. He used to be quite a good country runner, but I could beat him at chess. He beat me at everything else.

As well as talking about his life in education, Fred chose to pay tribute to the former teachers (Doe, Court and Harvey) who had inspired his love of Gilbert and Sullivan. And, with the help of a few brave colleagues and a drafted-in female singer, he performed excerpts from such memorable shows as Pirates of Penzance, HMS Pinafore and of course The Mikado.

With a minimum of rehearsal and costume, this came over remarkably well, and I for one could have done with more of it. The performance took place in St Martin at Palace Plain church, close by Norwich Cathedral, after an excellent lunch in the Louis Marchesi nearby.

The following day my wife and I had what was nearly an encore, when Fred spoke again at our golden wedding party and produced a brilliant adaptation of “I am the very model of a modern major general” in which we featured fairly strongly. A very special moment.

Stivichall seemed a very long way away.

Farewell to an old friend – David Coomes

It’s not often you find yourself in a congregation that includes top broadcasters Michael Buerk, Michael Portillo and David Starkey – as well as several others who I sort of recognised but couldn’t pin down.

The occasion was the funeral of my old friend David Coomes, who spent the major part of his working life as a radio producer at the BBC. He died after an incapacitating illness, and I was fortunate enough to spend some happy times with him and his wife Kristine fairly often during the last few years of his life.

We met when I joined a newspaper called The Christian back in 1966. It was my first job in journalism. I knew practically nothing, I was alone in London, and his infectious good humour was a great help in an office where I sometimes felt out of my depth. The paper was closed while I was on a year of absence at university, and he was made redundant too, working to start with on Middlesex County Times newspapers and helping me to get a job on the Acton Gazette as a sub-editor.

We were living opposite him in Winchmore Hill when our son was born. He and his first wife, Jennie, who was pregnant when we met, had a boy called Phil who became close friends with our son. So our families remained linked, even though we soon moved up to Norfolk to buy a house. Eventually David divorced and married newspaper editor Anne, moving up to Cheshire. She now edits the parish pump website for parish magazine editors.

When that marriage too broke up, David married Kristine, a highly talented German radio producer, researcher and trainer. It says something about him (and about his wives) that all three were at the funeral.

David was not only very, very good at what he did – hence the respect shown to him by people at the top of their game – he was generous, witty and kind. I don’t think he was ever quite sure about God, having periods of doubt and cynicism, but he never let go, and his love of the highly spiritual singer Leonard Cohen reflected that.

I would like to think I introduced him to Cohen, but my memory is not quite good enough to be sure. We certainly shared a love of his work, and it was absolutely right that instead of hymns at his funeral, three recordings of Cohen songs were played (You want it darker, Anthem and If it be your will). The words could not have been more appropriate.

David was a voracious reader of novels, and every time I saw him in the last few years, he presented me with two or three (or more) from his library to read – and to keep. He was making sure my brain kept working, and it was much appreciated. I will try not to let it slide, but it may be difficult.

My journey out of grumpiness and into a maximum

Watching Scotland beat England in a one-day cricket international was quite satisfying – partly because I feel a strong affinity to Scotland, despite my recalcitrant DNA, and partly because it wasn’t what I call cricket.

The bats are too heavy, and everything is weighted in favour of the batsman, who invent silly new strokes like reverse sweeps and overhead volleys.

The interesting thing about cricket is not hitting the ball hard and getting a “maximum”, which I believe is a six, though that clearly has too few syllables. If you want to hit the ball hard without finesse you can play baseball (or rounders, as I call it).

The interesting thing about cricket is the subtleties that bowlers can use to make the ball swerve, spin or swing. Very little of that is possible in one-day cricket, with its white ball and hard pitches.

Yes, I’m a grumpy old man. I look back with longing to those days when cricket and other sports were played by teams rather than groups, going forward was rather taken for granted, and “positive” was an adjective.

Now that we have reached the much-trumpeted soccer World Cup finals, we have the same sorts of problems, except that most teams seem to prefer negatives to positives, and more emphasis its placed on possession of the ball than on actually scoring. The thing about scoring is that you give away possession of the ball, by putting it in a precise area: the net. You know, the kind of thing that most teams never seem to practise.

Yes, I’m a grumpy old man. There is a group of us, though not a team. But is it worth listening to us? I quote from a scientific article: “Every generation tends to see society going to the dogs as standards of education, behaviour, speech and pretty much everything else decline. In fact, what many people see as decline is simply a move away from the norms they are accustomed to.”

Well, that could be true, but it depends on your general world view. If you think things are generally improving, it applies, and I should shut up. If you think things are gradually getting worse, then it doesn’t help. I do happen to think that. Scientifically, it’s called entropy. It’s happening to me, and it seems to be happening to the world generally.

However, as a Christian I have to take a more optimistic view of the universe, and of myself. Entropy may not be the end. I quote from a non-scientific article: “This is what the Lord says— he who made a way through the sea, a path through the mighty waters, ‘Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland.’ ”

That’s more like it. I am no longer grumpy, going forward. I might almost say I’m positive.

Great evenings, thanks to Ross and Colin

One day many years ago I had something done to my teeth. I forget what it was (there are so many possibilities), but as usual it involved sitting still for quite a long time, and to distract me from the discomfort of it all, my dentist, Ross, put some music on.

It so happened that he chose an album by Mary Chapin Carpenter, which was why I ended up in the Theatre Royal during the Norfolk and Norwich Festival last month. I am not a great concert goer, but this one was exceptional because of the quality of the songs, and for some reason I hardly thought of my teeth at all. According to my cousin Mark – who is a constant concert goer – it was one of her best performances.

There was a warm-up artist, and her name was Emily Barker. She was part of the reason I went to the concert, because I had been so impressed with a song she sang that accompanied one of the Wallander series. It was called Nostalgia, if I remember rightly. It brought it all back.

In the video that I found after falling for Wallander, Emily was accompanied by The Red Clay Halo, and I fell for the video too. Also the name of the group. It’s strange how one thing leads to another. In Norwich Emily did not bring the Halo but was accompanied by Lukas Drinkwater, another talented musician I had never heard of. There are so many of them. If it had not been for my dentist, I would never have heard of him.

The same could not be said for Barb Jungr, who I heard for the first time the same week, singing Bob Dylan songs in a tent the end of the evening. I was introduced to Bob Dylan back in the 1960s by a temporary friend who I have not seen for well over half a century. I bought my first Dylan album without having heard a single song of his, and was bowled over totally and immediately. Great lyrics, great tunes, great singing technique. If I were to say it changed my life, you might think I was exaggerating. But it did.

Barb sang quite differently but also brilliantly in jazz/cabaret style, accompanied by keyboard and bass. It was a marvellous evening, and her versions of songs I knew well were riveting. She was also witty and fun to be with.

She opened with the relatively recent Things Have Changed and ended with one of my old favourites, Chimes of Freedom. In between came the rarely heard but quite outstanding Blind Willie McTell – plus many others, of course. I wish you could all have heard it, but I understand some of you don’t like Bob Dylan songs. What’s the matter with you?

Why do I bother writing all this down? Because – as I say – I was musing on how one thing leads to another, and how you never have any idea that it’s going to happen. So thank you Ross, and thank you Colin, my temporary friend. And the rest of you, of course.

Going round in circles – with a stick

Thank you to the two people who responded to my few paragraphs last time and said they would like me to continue with the story. As this is a surprisingly high number of people even reading my posts, let alone responding positively, I am going to give it a shot. But that will take some time. For now, I am going to tell you about talking circles.

Most talking goes round in circles, of course. But occasionally someone gets excited about traditional ways of discussing things, and even more occasionally that person will set up a talking circle. More occasionally still, she will persuade other people to take part.

I took part in one of these the other day. I don’t know why, except that the person who asked was very persistent. (While we’re on that subject, can I remind all young people, particularly my grandchildren, that being persistent is the key to success: being talented is helpful, being lucky even more so, but being persistent is absolutely vital. You won’t believe this until you’re my age and regretting everything you didn’t do, or try, or finish.)

Anyway, we were sitting round in this circle, like Native Americans. That was the easy bit. If we wanted to speak, we had to pick up a stick, which someone had found on a beach. I don’t think the beach is essential, but apparently the stick is. You can’t talk if you don’t have the stick.

You can’t pick up the stick unless you have something to say – unless you are keen on meditation, in which case you can pick up the stick and think for a while, presumably because you have a burning desire to say something, though you don’t know what.

I don’t think that was in the rules; that’s just what happened. Incidentally, isn’t it strange how many people who love silent meditation can’t stop talking, or wanting to talk?

Anyway, this went on for some time, and some of what people said was quite interesting, though I suspect not in the way the person who organised it wanted it to be. Still, it was a circle, and the people on the circumference just went round and round, like bicycle wheels but without the helmets.

There is a flaw in all this, of course, and it’s not punctures (though I suppose that could happen). The main flaw is that the people who like talking talk, and the people who don’t much like talking, or can’t reach the stick, remain silent. The stick had a definite attraction to certain people, like a magnet.

That was all right for us, though, because we were told that what was really important was listening. Presumably in that case picking up the stick was self-sacrificial, because then you had to talk and couldn’t listen.

I hope I’m not making this sound complicated. The other important thing is to set a time when you have to finish. We did that. That worked well.

Something absolutely wrong

Over the years, I’ve started writing many works of fiction and finished a few. The other day I came across this one. These are the first four paragraphs. Do you think it’s worth continuing?

Sally-Anne McTell was born clinging to wreckage. The wreckage in this case was her mother, Wendy, who had been abandoned on a beach by her boyfriend, Roger, seven months through her pregnancy. Many of her friends saw this as a despicable, cowardly move on his part, because Wendy had a hard time struggling back through the soft sand and on to the promenade. Roger’s friends saw it as justified desperation, because Wendy was a pessimist – not just looking on the black side of things, but on the even blacker side of the blackness. She did not see how anything could possibly turn out well. In her experience, it never did.

“It’s all right for you,” she told an incredulous Roger. “You can go out to work. I’ll have to look after it every day. I’ve got a degree, you know. It will probably be ill, or brain-damaged.”

Roger said he did not believe brain damage was hereditary, and in any case the child might with any luck take after its father. This may have been a mistake. In response, Wendy detailed at length the ways in which she hoped the child would not turn out to be like its father, and Roger decided he wanted nothing more to do with either of them. His flat was empty by the weekend, and his sickly white saloon car was never seen in Norfolk again.

All of which was rather ironic, because the father of Wendy’s child was in fact a geography teacher who had met her one night in a pub on the seafront when Roger was in Peterborough. As they were both drunk at the time, neither of them remembered having sex behind the Marina Centre, though Wendy was puzzled to find sand in her stilettos the next day. As Wendy was in the habit of sleeping with Roger, she naturally assumed he was the father. In fact, he was sterile, but he did not find this out until much later, when he was living in Camden, Maine, with an optimistic waitress called Camille…


Norfolk chess star publishes games collection

An unexpected phone call recently led to an enjoyable visit  from Mike Read, one of Norfolk’s top chess players – but one who achieved his peak performances in a specialised form of the game.

Mike is a Senior International Master in correspondence chess. His results have always been exceptional, and eventually he played on top board for England in the Olympiad team. For health reasons he stopped playing at around the turn of the century and switched his attention to annotating games for the Norfolk chess magazine, En Passant.

Now he has produced a book of 120 of his correspondence games, all annotated entertainingly  by himself: he must be unique in not using one of the top chess computer engines to assist him, but his comments are almost always spot on and often profound.

I have known Mike since he was at school and started playing over-the-board chess, at which he also excelled. So I was delighted when he presented his book to me, and even more delighted when I started playing through the games, which demonstrate his clear, satisfying style.

One of his heroes is former world champion Bobby Fischer, whose opening preference he shares (“1 P-K4, best by test”); another is Norfolk’s over-the-board chess star Owen Hindle of Cromer, an England international who won the Norfolk chess championship in a record five decades. When I was at school, and just after, I used to play with Owen in the Norwich chess team Kings; one of my proudest achievements was to achieve a draw against him in a tournament match.

Mike, like Owen, does not brag about his considerable achievements in the world of chess and is always willing to share his skills with others. It was good to see him after a gap of several years.

Chess, by the way, is a beautiful game, easy to learn and worth exploring for purely artistic reasons. Mike’s book is called My 120 Selected Correspondence Games and is available from Amazon at a very reasonable £10.14.

Brief visit to snowy Barry Island

Having a certain fondness for Gavin and Stacey, I was not unhappy to journey down to Barry Island in South Wales on a snowy Sunday recently. The primary reason for going was to transport my wife to a Philosophy4Children training session at one of Barry’s schools (such sessions are highly recommended, if you happen to be a head teacher). Normally she would drive herself, but the weather was uncertain – not to say threatening. One of us might have to push the other out of a snowdrift, we thought.

As it happened, a thaw set in, and the roads were easily passable – even more easily than usual, because most people hadn’t got used to the idea of getting their cars out after several days of being snowed in. We drove merrily from Herefordshire into Wales, with picturesque views on all sides and nothing to impede our progress.

Barry itself was something else. There had been heavy snowfalls here, with a lot of thick whitish stuff sticking on to the roads, many of which were effectively single-track. This was also picturesque, but required some determination to handle. Nevertheless, we made it to Gail’s Guest House in good time.

After a meal, and while my wife and her colleague (arriving from Devon) prepared for the following day, I took a stroll round the dark streets, which were pretty much deserted. We were at the high point of Barry, and I was able to get some nice views out across the Channel, all the way to Somerset, with lights reflecting off snow.

The next day I walked round the cliff and on to the shore path back into Jackson’s Bay, helped a driver get out of a snow patch and discovered the small ruins of St Baruc’s Chapel, which were not spectacular. Apparently Barry is named after the saint, who drowned in the bay.

No, it wasn’t very lively, but it was a cold March day. Yes, some parts of the town were run down, but I liked it. I don’t know why.

We drove back to Norwich the next evening, which was probably a mistake. Someone had put some traffic lights on a roundabout on the way up to the M4, and as usual with such an arrangement, it had brought much of the traffic to a standstill. Then it started to rain, and it poured for most of the way home. We should have stayed at Gail’s.

After enduring the madness of a perversely named “smart motorway” (more of which, I understand, is going to affect part of the M6 near Coventry and make life even more difficult for drivers – but hey, who cares about them?), we pulled into Corley Services and received a Kentucky Fried Chicken  and chips from a young lad who didn’t really seem to have come to terms with the concept of service, or chicken, or chips.

From there it should have been a smooth run with the rain easing off, but no – someone had decided to resurface part of the A11, which of course meant shutting the road. We were diverted through Shropham, I think it was, following two funereal heavy lorries. Oh joy.

Still, Barry Island was almost worth it. I may go again. Oh, Gavin and Stacey? It’s a television programme. Very funny, too. Sorry you missed it.