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.

Billy Graham and the reality of faith

American evangelists don’t get as good a press nowadays as they did when I was young. Any kind of assurance, blessed or not, is now greeted with suspicion – which makes it remarkable that so many people still have such good things to say about Dr Billy Graham, who died this month at the age of 99.

He preached conversion to vast numbers of people over the years. I was one of them, and I remember wanting to respond to his appeal to “get up out of your seats” when I attended his rally at Harringay in 1954, when I was about nine. But I was too shy to move.

Nevertheless I did become a Christian not long afterwards – just before my father died when I was ten and our family’s life was turned on its head.

A little more than 12 years after that, through a series of strange events involving a holiday in Somerset and an apparently chance meeting with a Scotsman, I actually moved to London from Norwich – surprising myself as much as anyone – and began work for the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.

No, I wasn’t an apprentice preacher. I worked for a newspaper called The Christian – a very old British national weekly that the BGEA had just acquired. I was an editorial assistant, and I met some interesting people, including a Birmingham typist called Stephanie Drew who I encouraged to leave and become a nurse. Not one of my more far-sighted moves, though it proved good for her.

I even met Dr Graham on a couple of occasions, and I have to say that despite being my employer, he impressed me. I also made some friends who are still close, if you can call Ontario and Leyton close. Roger Murray, our wedding photographer, emigrated to Canada and through hard work became wildly successful as a publisher, photographer, artist and graphic designer. David Coomes because a producer at the BBC: The Moral Maze was one of his best-known programmes.

I left The Christian briefly to complete a degree at Birkbeck College, and while I was away the BGEA sold the paper and made its staff redundant. I don’t blame Billy Graham: I doubt that he knew much about it. But it was a sad loss. Eventually I found a job at the Acton Gazette in West London and from there a few years later moved back to Norwich and a job on the Eastern Daily Press. The rest is history. In fact, it’s all history.

But Dr Graham’s death brought it back. Am I as sure now as I was then? I think you get less sure of the details of life, the universe and everything as you get older, but I am just as sure of the essentials that Billy Graham preached and which I grasped firmly but often failed to live out. But that’s what Christianity is about: not being good, but being forgiven.

I owe as much now to another prominent Christian: the Bishop of Norwich, the Rt Rev Graham James, who I admire greatly for his intelligence, kindness and his deeply held faith. I think he, like Billy Graham, would echo the words of another bishop, Stephen Verney, as to what faith is all about:

“Faith is being grasped by a truth which confronts you and which is self-evident and overwhelming, and then trusting yourself to the reality which you now see.”

That’s not something that goes away.

Strange carvings at sunny Winterton

Winterton can be a bleak place, as the name might suggest. Placed strategically on Norfolk’s east coast at a point where the coastline finally decides to take the plunge and turn north-west, it is exposed to fierce winds, tides and storms, beating in from the North Sea.

The beach is open, and the village protected by an ever-shrinking line of dunes, sometimes transforming into a soft cliff, behind which hides a precarious but excellent cafe and open ground which serves as a car park. Oh, and some stern black fishermen’s huts – substantial and strong against the wind.

It is good walking country, those soft grass and sandy paths, and I have walked it for many years, going back to childhood holidays at the neighbouring village, Hemsby, more than half a century ago.

Bleak, yes, but often benign too. Last week, in the middle of many days of unpleasant weather (often very cold, often very wet), we woke to sunny skies and decided to drive from Norwich to Winterton – mainly to check on the damage caused by a recent storm.

We arrived to find that the expected wind was almost non-existent; what there was came from the ideal quarter – south-west. The January sun verged on the warm as we paid in the cafe for car parking and walked down on to the beach, avoiding the half-hearted tapes across the main paths.

We had seen pictures; so we knew what to expect. A recent storm had somehow created a wall of sand halfway up the beach, turning it into small cliff. Below the cafe, huge blocks of stone had been exposed, and holes carved out of the sand around and behind them. It was a startling picture because it was hard to see how it could have happened, but the power of wind and water can do strange things.

A mile or so further south the dunes have been gradually eroding, and holiday bungalows have fallen from their perches on to the beach. Like many beautiful places, it is fragile, on the edge.

We walked north for a while along the beach, and eventually the damage disappeared. Everything was back to normal: the sea dark but calm, with large gulls bobbing near the shore. Turning inland, we quickly reached the coast path and returned to the cafe for one of those excellent rolls and a surprisingly good cup of tea.

And we wondered how long it could all last.