Exploring Corwen and the mysterious lanes of Llyn

I am just back from Wales. Normally I would be just back from Scotland, but that seemed too far away. I mean, you don’t want to be quarantined by Nicola Sturgeon, do you? And if the Norfolk and Norwich Hospital did decide to wake up and aim to take my gall bladder out, I didn’t want to be so far away that I couldn’t respond in time. That’s the sort of thing that can set you back five years on the waiting list.

So we went to North Wales, which is one of my favourite places anyway – especially Corwen. Not many people say that, because as a small town it seems to have a number of drawbacks. For one thing, the A5 cuts right through the middle of it, and crossing it is a bit of a challenge. For another, it’s a bit too far from Snowdonia, if you’re a perfectionist. And the pubs do not serve food. Never have, and never will. If you want to know what an English pub used to be like, go to Wales.

I still like it, though, partly because it houses a large number of my wife’s cousins, who are totally different from me and therefore very agreeable company.

Our hotel in Corwen – a 17th century coaching inn with certain updates – comes as close to the A5 as it is possible to get without blocking it. It has no parking, and no evening meal, and no cooked breakfast. It has narrow, steep stairs and no lift. Our room on the top floor was so small that we had nowhere to put our clothes – it was exceeded in smallness only by our bedroom in the caravan we moved on to later.

We loved it. The couple who were running it at the time were wonderfully welcoming and would do anything for you. And who needs a cooked breakfast?

Corwen also has hidden bonuses. It is surrounded by hills – most notably the Berwyn Mountains, which are vastly underrated,when they are rated at all. It also has Caer Drewyn – a hill fort. Among other things. And it doesn’t have many tourists, except the ones passing through.

This turned out to be a huge advantage. Everywhere else we went was sprouting tourists out of every lane and lay-by. We went to the centre of Snowdonia and discovered there was literally nowhere to park. I have never seen so many cars in one place. We went to the delightful little coastal towns of the Llyn Peninsula, and found them full.

Fortunately the caravan park in Chwilog was not full. And after a bit of reconnoitring (or getting lost, as some might put it), plus a bit of advice from certain cousins, we found some delightful spots. I will mention them in case you happen to find yourself west of Snowdon.

One is Llanbedrog. Ignore the beach and go to the art gallery. Free parking, a delightful cafe and a stunning if quite demanding climb up to and along the cliffs. Another is Morfa Nefyn. They closed the short path to the beach; so there was a long, long walk up, down, along, over, up and down again to what I was reliably assured was the third most famous beach pub in the world – the Ty Coch Inn. Since you ask, Ty Coch means Red House. I’m not sure who came up with the degree of fame: probably the same genius who worked on the Covid statistics.

Lastly – and I do mean lastly, because if you don’t stop here you will drive into the sea – is Mynydd Mawr. Go left a bit after Aberdaron (full of parked tourists again), and you will find yourself on a ridiculously narrow and steep road, signposted Uwchmynydd, which appears to have been lifted from Lord of the Rings. The road seems to go nowhere. But it takes you instead up on to a rocky outcrop at the bottom of the peninsula – a memorable viewpoint with Bardsey Island poking out of the sea as the sun lowers itself into the water.

I wouldn’t tell you all this if I thought I would be inviting hordes to descend on these beauty spots. But fortunately I know hardly anyone reads this. So it should still be wonderful when you get there.

Some little known Covid facts. Or are they?

I don’t know very much about Covid, and I’m beginning to think that nobody else does either.

I’ve been told a number of things about the dreaded virus – by apparently sane people – that don’t make an awful lot of sense, but then if Covid is a nonsensical virus, perhaps that makes sense. If you see what I mean.

It seems that Covid is extremely nasty and can kill you. I know this is true, because it killed my cousin and has made some friends very ill. But at the same time you can have it and show no symptoms, which to me is the same as not having it.

I, for instance, do not have Covid. I think. Of course, I may have it, but then I may have smallpox, dengue fever, mumps, syphilis, hay fever, chicken pox and leprosy – but without the symptoms. It would be best if I wear a vacuum suit and a mask, and self-isolate. You never know.

By the time you read this, I may have Covid with full-blown symptoms, which would serve me right. But I have had a double vaccination; so I’m hoping that might work.

On the other hand, is it a real vaccination? A friend told me the other day that it wasn’t, and that they were just putting stuff in me. Of course, vaccination is putting stuff in you, but I didn’t like to say that, as I am quite fond of her.

Another friend suggested that the Government wanted everyone to get the Delta variant so that they were immune for the coming winter, but I find it hard to believe the Government is that organised. For the same reason I don’t believe it’s all a cunning plan to cut down the world’s population or to introduce microchips into our bloodstream and turn us into a controlled, fearful collection of would-be mice. Of course, I could be wrong: it would explain speed cameras.

Then there are the very silly rules, which may or may not be legal. It’s all right to sit down and eat or drink without a mask, but if you stand up, you have to wear one. It’s OK for crowds of sports fans to shout and hug each other, but of course it’s far too dangerous to sing in church, unless you’re wearing a mask. I mean, really?

And I don’t really get the pingdemic. Surely deleting the App would solve the whole problem?

That probably shows how little I know. But I don’t really want to know any more. I’ve stopped watching the news. I don’t see how cases of Covid can apparently go up and down the same time. Of course, I go up and down at the same time, but that’s the road humps. Or possibly one of the lesser known Covid symptoms.

Houseago surveys reveal disturbing facts about … well, surveys

I have recently instigated a couple of surveys, put together and carried out by an intensive group chaired by Henry (Fred) Houseago (93), a former diarist linked to several universities.

The first piece of work carried out by the Houseago group found that surveys were conducted by universities mainly in order to get them into the newspapers. This is now known as the Houseago Hypothesis.

The second ground-breaking research they trended revealed that any survey carried out by a research group ended up with results that members of the survey group wanted. This is similar to the recent finding that computer modelling always reflects the views of the people doing the modelling, whether they are virus experts or climate scientists – or indeed anything else.

This has been linked by Professor V A R Scheinlich of the University of Some of East Anglia to the Tolstoy algorithm, which can be summed up in fairly simple terms like this: “Most men, including those at ease with problems of the greatest complexity, can seldom accept even the simplest and most obvious truth if it be such as would oblige them to admit the falsity of conclusions which they delighted in explaining to colleagues, which they have proudly taught to others, and which they have woven, thread by thread, into the fabric of their lives.”

But that’s by the way. Prof Houseago’s research and surveys have, he says, revealed further unnerving facts. The first is that public consultation is carried out as an elaborate cover to disguise the fact that the people carrying out the consultation will do whatever they want anyway. This is backed up by a statement in a local newspaper today that a key city centre street ban on traffic “is set to become permanent from December, with consultations happening next month (ie July)”. The words “foregone” and “conclusion” spring to mind, not to mention the words “arrogant” and “self-centred”.

Another, possibly linked, proposal is “virtually undeniable”, says Prof Houseago. It is that people only respond to surveys by giving the answers they think the surveyors want to hear. A good example of this is the announcement the other day that “more than half of teachers in England are in favour of teaching children to take direct action against climate change”. Very woke of them – how about taking action against black holes?

But I digress. Who are these teachers? Well actually there were only 626 of them. I think we should be told who they are, especially as over 50 per cent of them thought this direct action should extend to civil disobedience. I wonder how many teachers think that such a survey is too pathetic to be worth taking part in. Still, the Houseago Hypothesis explains its existence.

Meanwhile, nothing explains Extinction Rebellion. says Prof Houseago. “They know less about climate than the Rev Nick Repps-cum-Bastwick,” he said. “But they don’t like people. Especially me.”

Just follow the road works until further notice

I live a few yards from the river, so I’m tempted now and again to grab one of those “Flood” signs that litter the highways in random fashion and put it at the bottom of our road. It wouldn’t do any good, but then I have never come across a “Flood” sign where there actually is a flood, so I would be doing it out of compassion for the sign: at least at the bottom of our road it would be within sight of water. 

Happily, as I’m about 40 feet above the river, there isn’t much chance of my house being flooded unless the drains pack up, or a waterfall hurtles down out of the Old Library Wood. It never has, but you never know.

There is however a flood in Norwich as I write. It does not involve water: it is a flood of signs. Some people might say it was a flood of road works, and it would be hard to disagree. One leads to the other, of course, just as a warming of the atmosphere leads to an increase of carbon dioxide in it.

Road works are hard things to contend with unless you’re a cyclist, in which case everything will be made easy for you. But the signs erected by the authorities are aimed at drivers. 

They have a lovely, standard sign that says ROAD CLOSED AHEAD. What it hardly ever says is how far ahead, or whether it’s the road going straight ahead that’s shut, or the one going off to the left at the next junction. This leads to credibility problems, with some cynical car drivers proceeding until they actually reach the barrier across the road, and then going back, or trying a last-minute side road that turns out to be a cul de sac. 

Stupid? It would be, except that sometimes you can in fact get through, and maybe it’s not that road that’s shut anyway…

On the way back to Norwich on the A11 the other evening, we were diverted off the main road because they were about to do some pretty drastic work on it – involving a bridge, I believe. We followed the DIVERSION signs until they petered out and we found ourselves back on the A11 – going in the opposite direction. I still don’t know where we were supposed to go, but thanks to years of driving round Norfolk as part of my job I was able to undertake an innovative one-off diversion of my own and add only 20 minutes to my journey. 

But if you want to while away a summer afternoon, I suggest you walk round Norwich following the DIVERSION signs. I would be interested to know where you end up. Practically everywhere in the city is part of a diversion, and halfway through one diversion you often find yourself embroiled  in another one. They may or may not fit together.

A few days ago I couldn’t help noticing that as you came away from the rail station along Riverside there were two large signs warning ROAD CLOSED AHEAD and THORPE ROAD CLOSED. Since there was no right turn into Thorpe Road anyway, the sign was totally superfluous, not to say confusing.

But of course I’m being picky. Could I do better? Possibly. Some people say there are people in City Hall and County Hall whose main aim in life is to make life more difficult for motorists, but I couldn’t possibly comment.

I’ll let you be in my dream: the magic of Bob Dylan

So Bob Dylan is in his 80s. Bet he never thought that would happen, back when he was blowing’ in the winds of change during the fragile 1960s. Most people then were pessimistic about longevity, what with the threat of nuclear annihilation and the Cold War. “Hope I die before I get old,” as The Who put it in one of their less inspired moments.

I was there, in London during the Swinging Sixties, though I didn’t really notice. It all seemed pretty unremarkable to me, and I never thought those nuclear attacks would happen. I lived to start with in a bedsit in Stamford Hill, in a road that was predominately the home of Orthodox Jews. Not much swinging there. I had a Jewish doctor, who was great. You could see him face to face.

I did go to a few parties, but I don’t remember much about them. That may or may not be a bad sign. I was working five days a week and at university four evenings a week, which didn’t leave a lot of time for exploring inner space, with or without mushrooms.

It wasn’t as boring as it sounds, partly because London is never less than interesting, and I listened to Bob Dylan a lot. I don’t want to beat about the bush: in my opinion Dylan was a totally brilliant singer-songwriter, outstanding in a time of many talented songwriters and performers. Was? He still is, of course. I never expected that.

I bought his first record, Freewheelin’ (actually his second, but the first that was entirely self-composed) without ever having heard him, on the recommendation of a friend. At the time we were visiting Coventry, where I had lived a few years as a child, and I remember going back to the friend’s house where we were staying, taking the record up to the bedroom, where for some reason there was a portable record player, and putting it on. I had to be hauled down to supper. I was mesmerised. I couldn’t believe how good it was.

Up to then I had been a big fan of Buddy Holly, who really did die before he got old – or even middle-aged – and through no fault of his own. But Dylan was something else. Everything about the songs was wonderful. The words, the music, the timing. 

Needless to say, I now have a large collection of Dylan records.

He is human, of course, and he has written some poor songs. Not many, though –  and they are eclipsed by the sheer weight of the brilliant ones. I bought the double album Blonde on Blonde in Minneapolis when I was on a brief visit to the States, and it contains probably my all-time favourite, Visions of Johanna. But then Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands on the same album is also exceptional, and there there is Like a Rolling Stone, of course, and All Along the Watchtower – the only one of his songs I can think of that someone else (Jimi Hendrix) performed even better than he did.

Chimes of Freedom was always underestimated, and later on we had the stunning Hurricane, Jokerman, Mississippi, Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door, and more recently Not Dark Yet and Things Have Changed. Not to mention the last album, with its tour de force, Murder Most Foul. There are so many more, it’s actually laughable to  pick those out. 

These are songs that lift the spirits, and you just wish that the younger generation would give them a shot. But of course the younger generation rarely does. When I was young, my parents and their friends loved musicals, crooners and big bands, and really never “got” rock and roll, or Bob Dylan. I never got the ones they loved, and I probably still don’t. 

There are exceptions to this rule. When my son went to university in the early 1990s, he used to bring home albums and play them to us. Some of them I quite liked. But then he brought home Counting Crows’ album, August and Everything After. I loved it. It was brilliant. It reminded me of Bob Dylan. And to be fair, my son likes Bob Dylan too. 

At this point the analogy breaks down. All analogies do, eventually. I think Abraham Lincoln said that. I’ll let you be in my dream if I can be in yours. Dylan said that.

Songs that tear you apart and put you back together

As age creeps up and taps you on the shoulder day after day, you ask yourself various questions. These are usually prefixed with “When?”, but sometimes drift on to “Who?”, “What?” and quite often “Why?”

Recently I have been thinking about songs. The ones you really love usually date back to your youth and stick with you: I don’t listen to very much modern music – not because I don’t like it, but because I am full of the music of my earlier years.

What are my favourite songs of all time? I could give you a list, but I would almost certainly forget an important one or two, or three. My favourite songwriters are pretty easy – Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen – but favourite songs are more difficult. If pushed, at this point in time and space, I might say Dylan’s Visions of Johanna and Cohen’s Alexandra Leaving.

But maybe my favourite song of all is not by either of them. It could be the breathtaking Fountain of Sorrow, by Jackson Browne, or the almost perfect Lady with the Braid by Dory Previn. Perhaps it changes every day.

The other day I came across a new contender for the very long list. It is not a new song: it was written in the early 1970s by Townes van Zandt – a great songwriter but one who perhaps because of his character and lifestyle never really became widely popular. The version that did it for me, however, is by Emmylou Harris and The Hot Band, performed – also in the 70s – on the Old Grey Whistle Test, perhaps the best of all pop music TV shows.

The song is called Pancho and Lefty, which I have to admit is not a promising start. But the words are beautifully understated, with a great deal left unsaid and a tragedy that unfolds and then folds back. The music is perfectly attuned to the lyrics and – as performed by The Hot Band, featuring the brilliant guitarist Albert Lee, who I should know much better – heart-rending and uplifting at the same time.

There is mystery too, of course. The story sounds as if it should be true, but even the writer couldn’t or wouldn’t say: he even claims he didn’t really write it – it came into his head out of the blue.

Anyway, see what you think. You can find it here. And, as Groucho Marx almost said when asked about his principles, if you don’t like it, I have others.

PS If you have problems hearing the lyrics, which are pretty important, you can hear them clearly on the same song sung by its composer, Townes Van Zandt, here.

The beautiful connection between chess and North Norfolk

Is it possible to have too many books? When it comes to moving house, as my brother is about to do after some 40 years, the answer is a resounding yes. But in normal circumstances, it is a comforting thing to see the number of bookcases in a house increase, even when they are not being used as a backdrop to a Zoom conference.

So I was more than happy in the past few weeks to obtain three new books from fellow Norfolk writers who I have had the honour to be associated with over some years.

One is Shifting Sands by Godfrey Sayers, who is probably the most reliable source of information about the history and geography of North Norfolk to the west of Salthouse. He has lived in the area since he was a child and has wide experience of walking and fishing (professionally) there. His latest book, a follow-up to the very impressive Once Upon a Tide, looks at the rise and fall of the Glaven Ports, what happened to the coastline there over the centuries, and why – as well as what might have happened if different decisions had been taken.

Like his earlier book, this one contains many examples of his paintings, for Godfrey, as many of you will know, is also a first-rate artist as well as a renowned campaigner for the environment and a bit of a minor prophet when it comes to what might happen next. A book well worth reading if you have any interest in the area and want to know more about its obvious beauty.

The second and third books are about chess – a world away? Not really, because the attraction of chess is its wild beauty. Not easy to convey to non-players, but once you are grabbed by it, it never lets you go.

I have known Mike Read and David LeMoir for many years. David is editor of the Norfolk chess magazine, En Passant, as well as being a very strong, exciting player and a brilliant writer about the game. His latest book, Chess Scribe: a 50-Year Anthology, is particularly compelling as it looks back over a whole lifetime of his chess writing, coming up with many famous names along the way.

I especially enjoyed the section on Owen Hindle, probably Norfolk’s strongest ever player, as well as, scattered through the book, many games from friends I have fought with over the years, especially those at the Norwich Dons Chess Club.

One thing I would have liked is an index, just to check that my name didn’t crop up anywhere, but why should it? If it did, I would have to mention it, which would be embarrassing. Mike Read’s name does crop up, of course, as he is, with Owen, another very strong Norfolk player who is internationally recognised.

He has recently published his second book – another collection of his correspondence games which this time includes draws and defeats as well as victories. It’s called Triumph and Disaster and, as with his first book containing 120 of his games, it has the outstanding merit of being attractive to read. Mike has the gift of making his games, which are often complex, easy to understand for lesser talents, but still compulsive for strong players.

All of these books are available from Amazon. Do not buy them if you are about to move house.

Why is there nobody in the cemetery?

There was nobody in the cemetery today. I don’t mean that the way it sounds. I’m sure there were a large number of bodies in the cemetery, because that is what it’s for. But there was nobody above ground, apart from the maintenance staff.

You may think this is a strange thing to be remarking on, but it was a sunny day, though a bit chilly, and during the various lockdowns we have been enjoying over the past year or so, the number of people walking round the cemetery has grown gradually, until last week we were remarking on how many there were.

The Rosary, as I have mentioned before, is a beautiful place to walk round. It is hilly (for Norfolk), wooded and beautifully laid out – in that rather unusual way that makes you think subliminally that it hasn’t been laid out at all.

It is easy to see why it should attract people who want to walk for exercise (what other reason could there be?). At the outbreak of lockdowns, hardly anyone was there. Then gradually people noticed it, but it never became crowded. Crucially, dogs were banned, and still are.

So why nobody today? Because today people can go to non-essential shops. There are queues outside Primark and Debenhams. The roads are full of traffic. And of course if you can queue outside a shop or sit in traffic, why would you want to walk round a cemetery?

I sometimes think there are two different human races, and I don’t mean a sprint and a long-distance. There is the race that will stand in long, cold queues for non-essential shops, buy a dog during lockdown, drop litter without thinking about it, and rush out to the pub and sit outside in a bitter wind drinking a pint, just because they can today and couldn’t yesterday. And there is the other race.

It would be invidious to say one is right and the other is wrong. I wouldn’t say that, obviously. But there is a gulf fixed between them. Isn’t it remarkable how different we are?

I know what you’re thinking. You like dogs but don’t stand in queues. You like pubs but don’t drop litter. Perhaps I’d better rethink it. There must be an equation that solves it. Let’s put Sage on to it, do some computer modelling and invite a few research studies.

I know what will happen. We’ll end up with several million human races – or mutations or strains, as they will be called – and we will need another lockdown to cope with it. That’s when I shall head back to the cemetery, possibly for the last time.

Let’s hear from people with inconvenient views

Don’t get me wrong. I happen to believe that the COVID vaccine is an excellent thing, created in the main by beautiful people with the good of mankind at heart. They have worked hard, often at personal expense, to save many people’s lives.

I am strongly in favour of vaccination, not least because it protects people other than the vaccinee. I think we should be prepared to put up with discomfort, and possible mild side-effects, if it helps prevent the spread of what can be a very nasty disease.

But this does not prevent me from having slight misgivings about vaccination in general, partly because I do not understand it. I am not a biologist or a chemist, or a doctor. I certainly don’t think it contains micro-chips designed to control our lives (one off-the-wall conspiracy theory), but does it have a prolonged effect on our immune systems and our DNA? I have no idea. Is vaccination generally behind the many and varied mood disorders, like attention deficit disorder and types of autism, that seem so rife in children nowadays and were notably absent in my schooldays? Or is this total rubbish?

What exactly is being injected into us? I don’t know. Even those who do know may not understand completely how it interacts with all the other stuff in our bodies, but it is a question of proportion. Prevention of COVID is an important, possibly vital, thing to be able to do, as was prevention of smallpox, polio, measles and other once-feared illnesses. It seems worth the risk. That is the best I can say, and so that is what I do say.

What I do not say is that we should create a society where these things cannot be questioned. To dismiss everyone who does not want to be vaccinated, for whatever reason, as “stupid anti-vaxers” and to deny them a platform is the first step (maybe not even the first) down a slippery slope.

Some people have very weird ideas. Take Galileo, for instance. We are at liberty not to believe them, but if we deny them access to publicity or publication, we may be refusing to believe something that turns out to be true. Science changes day by day. If we refuse to read about anything except what is generally accepted, that is anti-science, not the other way round.

We are dangerously close to taking this position on climate change. When was the last time you heard anything other than the “official” position on climate change from any major news outlet? And yet very many scientists have different ideas. I may not believe them, but I want to hear them. No, I am not a “climate change denier”.

To shut out dissenting voices opens the door to a totalitarian society. One commentator from the transport sector sees a real risk of “environmental totalitarianism” in a post-pandemic world, “bypassing any democratic process….The costly climate agenda is all about controlling you, not the climate.” 

Similar threats to freedom occur with movements like Black Lives Matter (of course they do) and the no-platforming of people with controversial ideas at universities, not to mention the refusal to let high school pupils learn about blasphemy. I am against blasphemy, by the way.


Watch the streets: they could soon be filling up again

If you are, like me, an avid watcher of old movies or a keen gazer at old photographs, you may have been struck by the way 2021 seems in one respect to be heading towards the past.

To see the resemblance you must steer clear of shopping centres. They tend to be on the empty side. But riverside walks, woods, parks and beaches are, in my part of the world anyway, surprisingly busy.

Obviously they are frequented only by local people exercising in accordance with Government regulations – the temptation to remain law-abiding is almost irresistible, I find – but they still seem to be much fuller than they were a couple of years ago.

Recently I watched Brighton Rock, a film set in – you guessed it – Brighton, in 1948. This was unusual in that it was filmed with hidden cameras, featuring Brighton residents and tourists engaged in their day-to-day activities, unaware that the 25-year-old man in a hat rushing through their streets and looking ten years older was in fact playing a 17-year-old hoodlum in a Graham Greene story.

Don’t be put off by the age problem: it’s a great film. But what impressed me as much as anything was the number of people in the streets. The streets were packed. And if you look at old real-life pictures and films, you’ll find the same thing. Everyone is out of doors.

Why? Because something is missing from their lives. Television.

It was only recently that I realised how much time I spend watching television – mainly dramas and documentaries. It is not because I’m bored. It’s not even because the Government wants me at home, where it can keep its eye on me. It’s because I really enjoy dramas and documentaries. Well, most of them. I try not to think of what I might accomplish if television didn’t exist.

If I had been around in 1948 (actually I was – but only just) I would have been out in the street. True, they had radio, but it wasn’t that exciting. So why stay at home? There was a big world out there to explore. Well, biggish.

My childhood days were like that, and I suspect it may happen again. When the restrictions are relaxed people will be so relieved that they will rush excitedly outside, form crowds and start interacting like mad. We won’t be able to move for people, and they won’t even be part of a protest. Television will be moved to the back shelf.

Am I mad? Possibly. “We are all born mad. Some remain so,” as Samuel Beckett wrote in Waiting for Godot. (Good drama. If it were on television, I would watch it.) But you can be mad and right at the same time. Anyway, watch the streets, especially if you live in Brighton. And keep an eye out for hidden cameras.