On a roll.

Aged nine, as the third of four children, sitting in the front of our white Cortina Estate was the closest I could come to adulthood. The front was where the grown-ups sat.

The liberation of being driven away from the cloistered world of cricket pitches, pine trees, bracken, red brick Victorian buildings and a school timetable built on Edwardian principles was intoxicating. Perched on the red plastic passenger seat, travelling back from St Neot’s Prep School, my Saturday morning prospects would be the thrill of home and, in the summer, the garden. I could anticipate the deep greens of the chestnut trees over the dip; the achingly huge – to me – grass tennis court that was our front lawn; the reassuring tap of my father’s typewriter from the windows of the flat. There might be the scent of drifting Player’s Navy Cut pipe tobacco smoke in the air.

Summer would see my mother smilingly de-stringing runner beans at a table on the back lawn or carefully hanging out sheets she had sides-to-middled on the line. Several divisions of bees would patrol the catmint in the herbaceous border, a thousand bumble raid scooping up, rather than scattering, their powdery, pollen bombs. Little Downham’s tumbledown edges would be softened by the miraculous life that hummed in the three-quarters-of-an-acre in which we were lucky enough to grow up.

Whichever parent picked me up for one of the two exeat weekends in a thirteen-week term, there would be a roll from Banham’s Progress Bakery, ready to eat on the way. My mother never failed me. From the white paper bag, through the thinnish crust around a doughy ball of puffed white bread, would come a residual waft of yeasty fumes. It was a yearning scent of hunger, one we breathed in on dog walks across the village recreation ground when baking was in progress. The butter – Anchor butter – would have melted a little when spread and was setting again to a salty ganache. Strands of thick orange pith, cocooned in a dark, syrupy magic were lying at the epicentre, mostly softened but crunchy in places with a crystalised frost. Homemade Little Downham marmalade was unique, almost savoury, and the combination giddying. My roll was an edible version of Steve McQueen’s motorcycle jump in The Great Escape. Full of hope and possibility, I was biting into freedom, as we threaded our way around Twyford, past Reading, through Marlow and the down-and-up valley of High Wycombe.

There have been similar echoes of food as liberation throughout my life, but the loudest appeared in a book. Impressionable and with a ravenous imagination, I devoured the Narnia stories, not as religious instruction, but as magical adventures that resolve to deeply satisfactory endings. Baddies are vanquished. Priggish children have the stuffing knocked out of them and become likeable. Animals talk. Between the age of seven and ten, I read and re-read them several times, usually when ill. I recently finished Katherine Langrish’s wonderful ‘From Spare Oom to War Drobe’. Published in 2021, it is a companionable critique of the chronicles, instructively honest and full of illumination. She wanders her reader through the seven books, simultaneously as informed scholar and her nine-year old self. Her adult eyes nail the inconsistencies, maddening omissions, religious didacticism and the colonialist tropes of Lewis’ world view. The nine-year old in her never loses a love for the stories nor, ultimately, their creator.

She doesn’t mention my favourite passage of all in the whole saga but perhaps it doesn’t merit literary attention. In The Horse and His Boy, chronologically the third book in the series, a blue-eyed youth called Shasta escapes the slavery of his cruel fisherman ‘father’, a dark skinned tyrant who looks nothing like him. Long story short, the boy runs away on a talking horse, meets a similarly dark skinned near-Princess, also running away – from an arranged marriage – on a talking mare, and travels across an exotic, Arabian Nights land, through near calamitous adventures and an exhausting desert trek to Archenland and Narnia. (Narnia, in my imagination, looked conveniently like Gloucestershire, a place my mother would drive us as children to picnic in the Cotswold village where she grew up.) Shasta turns out to be a Narnian baby lost at birth. All is neatly resolved.

Having made it through all the complications, slipping ahead of an invading army giving chase, Shasta finds himself alone, in thick fog, atop a mute horse. He is separated from everything and everyone he knows. He is exhausted, feels a failure, and is close to despair. In a timeless interlude, he has a terrified conversation with something or somebody unseen, next to him in the mist. Without him knowing, he’s being guided by the lion of the piece, Aslan, who talks to him like a stern vicar handing out school prizes.

The fog lifts. The lion has disappeared. He stumbles away from his horse and into Narnia for the first time. Fainting with hunger, he is met and scooped up by some friendly animals and a household of dwarves. Thanks to Shasta’s faint and weary tip-off, a centaur rushes away to warn the Narnian Court about the invading Calormenes (a caricature composite of North African, Arabian and South Asian cultures). The dwarves take charge and cook Shasta breakfast. Endless cups of tea, a feast of bacon, eggs and mushrooms, proper dairy butter slavishly spread over slice after slice of toast, the meal is served with incredible energy and lush description, to a boy who has never seen anything like it before in his life. The cups and plates are small, but never empty. Shasta practically overdoses on the most perfect, greasy spoon fry-up you could imagine. He then falls asleep at the table, snoring his head off.

I’m not sure I have ever encountered a better description of breakfast. Certainly not before and hardly since. There remains a sense of welcome, of relief, of arrival in the simple prose of the episode.

Back in the real world, aged eight or nine, the soft white roll with home-made marmalade did pretty much the same job. My edible passport, it transported me to happiness. With each bite and an increasingly light heart, I knew I was being driven towards a promise of freedom that would not be broken for two whole days.

Key.

Key facts. Key people. Brand keys. The ugly phrase, ‘It’s key’.

Take the word ‘key’ away from the advertising world and, perversely, a whole raft of critical thoughts disappear behind closed doors and become unreachable. Deprive some individuals I know of its use and they would default to inarticulate mumbling. Finding an alternative – a handy synonym or two – would be too laborious. As a sort of lifebuoy, grabbed in flailing sentences, ‘key’ is rammed into the slots of so many exchanges.

The word is used to steer a phrase forwards: the ‘key performance indicator’ (or, hideous acronym, ‘KPI’). It is grabbed as a ubiquitous paddle. Waggled about in streams of marketing speak, it keeps things bobbing along. Such is its ubiquity, it has become all but divorced from the object that inspired its employment (in advertising and other occupations) in the first place.

Every now and then, we’re reminded of the use and necessity of real keys, those passports that unlock the barriers of our lives, the protective, secretive, secure and sometimes irritating doors of our existence. None more so than in an unusual combination of events that I couldn’t make up if I tried.

I am not a footballer. I never will be. Through some quirk in the space-time-guestlist continuum, I was first invited to the McCormicks football club dinner in 1984. The agency team was the Nutford Parrots. (We were based in Nutford Place.) About thirty people were invited by the president and head of media, Gus Annetts. It was held in new premises that Eddie, proprietor of our local Italian restaurant, Salino’s, had just secured in an Edgeware Road basement. We dined on alcohol and some very funny speeches. Eddie, the genial incarnation of a large and aging Maradona, dumped neverending bottles of Sambuca on our tables and nodded with patient stoicism as flight after burning flight of amaretti papers rose haphazardly towards the ceiling.

I was invited again in 1985. This time, the venue was the upstairs room at The Goat, a pub in Mayfair. Gus decreed that, this time, it should be a bad taste dinner. Everyone took the dress code to heart. We looked a shocking bunch, garish peacocks in hideous plumage, a collective horror show of ill-matched clowns. Steve Baker, a charismatic media man who enjoyed Sealed Knot English Civil War re-creations at the weekends, stole the show. With the friendly looks of a teddy bear and a touch of the young Winston Churchill, he told long, engagingly filthy stories with a flair that should have made him a fortune on the comedy circuit. We had a good time.

My own wardrobe comprised a Paisley shirt with enormous wing collars, terrible worsted flares and clumpy yellow shoes like blocks of Gouda. I topped off the look with a massive mackintosh, a black marquee of Dementor styling, bought from a second-hand shop in Oxford. I had changed at the office in Nutford Place.

The evening echoed the previous year. We laughed and laughed as the Parrots achievements on the football field were acknowledged in speeches that attested to modest success. Long before Toy Story broke upon the world, the club’s motto could easily have been, ‘Falling with style’ – both on and off the pitch. Around closing time, I wobbled out into Mayfair, hailed a taxi and headed home to the flat I rented in Maida Vale. My landlady – the impossibly glamorous and loveable Cath Johnson – was out that night, staying with her boyfriend of the time. I would have the place to myself. Paying off the driver, I turned to the door of our building and reached for my keys. The mackintosh’s pockets were huge but I was trawling in barren seas. They weren’t there. Shit. Where were they? Woozy, fuddle-headed tiredness gave way to panic. The realisation struck. I had left them in the pocket of my suit, back at work.

The flat was on the first floor. My bedroom had a tiny verandah outside the window, really the roof of the mansion block porch. Improvising, I tried to manoeuvre a metal ladder, tied to scaffolding on a building site a few doors down, thinking I could climb up to my room. Within seconds, I was shouted at angrily from more than one window and beat a hasty retreat. Morosely, I reasoned that I had to go back to the office. I hailed another cab on Elgin Avenue and returned to Nutford Place.

In the 1980s, twenty-four hour security was a rarity. Empty offices were simply locked and left unmanned. McCormick’s was no exception although I was unaware. I rang the bell and banged futilely on the plate glass. It was a little after midnight. The reception people wouldn’t arrive until 7am at the earliest. A sort of dim inspiration struck.

Cath’s squeeze at the time was Anthony Daniels, an extremely likeable actor and, in his own words, one of the luckiest. As the man who played C3PO in Star Wars, he was on a percentage of perhaps the highest grossing film franchise of all time, portraying a character known by countless millions. Nevertheless, he could still venture out in public without fear of being recognised. It just so happened that he lived about 200 yards away from McCormicks. I wandered towards his home, set in a terrace of two-storey Georgian cottages.

I was extremely nervous of disturbing Cath and Mr Daniels. As unwelcome interruptions go, I was about to present a textbook case of hideous ambush. With a deep breath, I grabbed a pebble and stood outside Number Eleven. Channelling distant memories of cricket field accuracy, my first throw miraculously hit the upper window with a satisfactory bang. Stifling embarrassment, I readied my speech. The window flew open. A balding, white fringed head appeared and its owner was deeply unhappy. It was neither my landlady nor the actor. I was told, in forcible terms, to ‘procreate yonder’. The man threatened to call the police. It was the wrong house.

Hopelessly confused about which exactly was the right number, I apologised and fled. Was it fifteen – or thirteen – or perhaps another one? Addled, wary and with no mobile phone (in those days), I stalked off back to the Edgeware Road. It was now about 1.30am. I had £10 in my pocket. I’d left my wallet at the flat. In the pre-card economy, it was always about having cash, and I kept my bank card and wallet in a safe place. Leaving it behind was a ruse to avoid loss whilst under the influence. Leaving the keys in the office was just plain stupid.

All that remained was the hotel option. I walked sorrowfully along Sussex Gardens peering at the dodgy boarding establishments, solicited heavily by the clumps of working girls. I declined as politely as I could. In an echo of Monopoly, I wanted a hotel for a tenner. I asked at two or three places, but was laughed out of each. That freezing, winter night, deadened with the delayed effects of my boys club dinner and now brimming with full-on anxiety, I needed Old Kent Road, not West End, prices. With no sense of direction, I ended up opposite Paddington Station and sidled through the door of The Metro Hotel. I took the flight of stairs to what appeared to be a brightly lit reception. The man there stared at me from where he sat with alert interest. I was suddenly very aware of how I looked and felt. Beery, in a flowery shirt, with clumpy yellow shoes like clogs gone wrong, in a big, swishing mac, red eyed and rather desperate.

“Excuse me,” I faltered, “I’ve just been to a bad taste party, I’ve locked myself out of my flat and I need somewhere to stay for the night.”

He gave me a hugely encouraging grin as he opened the door behind him. “Yeah, yeah, yeah,” he repeated reassuringly, with the tone that couples who’ve been married forty years use to address each other. As the door swung open, he continued, “These are my girlfriends. Which one do you want?”

Two girls lolled on a bed and looked at me with studious indifference. They were in various states of undress and not entirely alluring upholstery. I looked at the man aghast. “No, no,” I protested. “I really have been to a bad taste party and locked myself out. I just need a bed for the night.” His face fell, and he he became brusque and cold. He took my tenner and jerked his head up the next flight of stairs. “First door opposite.”

I clumped upstairs into a room with two single beds and a yellow lightbulb in the shadeless socket. A basin and a scrap of curtain completed the decor. I fell onto the bed, trying not to think about how many people might have done the same in recent hours. I slept badly until 6.30am, hoicked myself up to the basin and, for some reason, shifted my gaze to look down into the waste paper bin, half tucked beneath. Like a washed-up octopus, a wreath of discarded and obviously used condoms squatted in its depths. I fled the room and the hotel and practically ran to McCormick’s, where the handyman opened the office at 7am.

With no cash but my keys and still in my bad taste garb, it was time to head home, have a shower and come back to work. On the Number Six bus, the conductor asked me “Where to?” and I said, “Elgin Avenue.” “30 pence,” he rattled off. With emphatic petulance, I muttered, “I don’t have any money.” He looked at me for a second, turned on his heel and let it go. I could have hugged him.

Never have I been so grateful to put a key into a lock.

It’s memory that resurfaces periodically. From that day, I have always more careful about keeping a key to hand and, perhaps unsurprisingly, its use in my vocabulary.

Passage.

We steamed along the coastline,

From the shore

A dot of a yacht.

In turn, the land for me

Danced back and forth.

Cliffs dipped,

Headlands bowed,

A beach was sheathed,

A blade of sable light.

Gently, the land stood back,

Visual murmurs of its presence

Shadows in a November dusk:

Last glimpses of earth

Before the great open water.

Goodbye, I thought,

Uncertain, detaching

And turned.

I was under way.

14th July 2021 – after Biscay, November 1982.

Cab.

   skynews-london-black-cab-taxi_5183812                                               

“Do you mind going to Balham?”

Two out of three drivers would pause, suck their teeth and – it being the 1980s – give a slight shake of the head before driving off.  After hours, the West End offered up journeys far more promising than mine. Upstretched, hailing hands from the pavements would be clumped as thick as bullrushes.  Darting back and forth to Kensington, Chelsea, Holland Park and all points St John’s Wood far outgunned ‘going south’.  Those that did take me often explained how they were doing me a favour.  No return fares, see, and they’d have to get back to, dunno, Victoria or the King’s Road, ‘fore there was anything doing, know wot I mean?  I would babble at them in pathetic gratitude.  There was a consistent pattern.  In the chat, we’d work our way steadily towards whichever Canary or Balearic Island, or bit of the Costa Del Sol, they would be spending their entire January and, sometimes, February too.  

Not any more. Uber, Covid and dramatic change have firebombed that pick-and-choose economy. Balham is now a good fare, whose citizens – in normal times – are ferried back and forth in all manner of Hackney Carriages, Addison Lee people carriers and streams of Priuses. When we finally moved from Wandsworth to West London, London’s SW postcodes had become shrines to German engineering. Mercedes, Audis and BMWs formed long kerbside pews, filled at the weekends by the worshipfully moneyed. They would set off to join glacially moving traffic jams around the Northcote Road (or Nappy Valley, as it was rechristened) with gleaming impotence.

It didn’t happen every day, but I lost count of the times I would stand, somewhere near Regent Street, with hesitantly windmilling arms, attempting to flag down a taxi for a quicker passage home than a bus or tube. Nights out with clients or ‘lates’ in the office for pitches and presentations, claimable after 9pm, made such luxuries possible.  (Ah, expense accounts…) When finally successful, once past my grovelling gratitude and the Iberian second home chat, we’d riff disapprovingly about the beaten-up, death trap Toyotas that rattled around Hyde Park Corner. According to my chauffeuring correspondents, these unlicensed minicabs were ignored by the Met, who preferred to stop honest cabbies in their tracks, penalising the licensed trade for less than two mills of tread on their nearside rear tyres.  I mean, squire, do me a favour…  During daytime trips, Ken Livingstone’s mayoral assault on the traffic light system around Trafalgar Square replaced the minicab polemic.  With a sufficient head of steam, we could be well past Vauxhall by the time the invective cooled.  Staring balefully at me in the rearview mirror, the evening drivers would conjure up minicab drivers as a sort of mythic blend of exotic East Asian meets Eastern European in one, scheming hybrid, catastrophically lacking the necessary credentials of a licence, motor insurance or anything approaching The Knowledge. Shocking, I would agree from the back seat, in what I hoped was the correct, London cabbie twang. My socially accommodating accent was so clumsily fake, you could have driven a taxi fleet through its pretensions, with enough change left over for a Southend-and-back. It was (and, regrettably, sometimes still is) a terrible habit.  

At weekends, when we minicabbed every and anywhere, all bets were off.  It was a twin system and roles were reversed. I would bellyache enthusiastically about bully boy black cabs if the subject came up.  Fickle wimp that I am. 

Later, as my work life evolved to include commuter flights to Europe and further flung visits to DDB, Ogilvy and Unilever outposts, I grew to recognise my morning pick-up drivers by sight and, sometimes, name.  At one point, based in Paddington for three years, I became a shared property together with a host of BBC presenters. My Heathrow and City airport flits were squeezed between their lifts to and from Broadcasting House.  I was very much the second-class, second-dibs fare compared to the celebrity roster. For some reason, every other car was the one that Phil Jupitus had just left, carted from his Fenland home to a Beeb studio in the small hours. His cast-off newspapers were a bonus read. 

London Taxis were the capillaries of advertising in the 1980s.  In Charlotte Street, Soho, Mayfair and Knightsbridge, serried ranks of black cabs outside agency buildings suggested wait times made the taxi companies more money than actual journeys.  At one ad agency, a strident, draconian email went out, bewailing the profligacy of the company taxi account and just how much was being wasted on ridiculous delays. An inquest was announced. Dire penalties were threatened. It all went suddenly quiet when the worst culprit turned out to be the wife of one of the agency’s founders. She’d had drivers parked up for days outside the capital’s more exclusive boutiques. 

Elsewhere, legendary cab stories grew in the telling. One of the greatest art directors ever, Alan Waldie (Benson & Hedges’ regulation-sidestepping, surreal posters and Heineken’s ‘Water in Majorca’) once ordered a cab to pick him up from Collett Dickinson Pearce to go home from the Euston Road at 7.30pm. He paused for some refreshment in The Rocket next door, before asking the driver to take him on to the Zanzibar in Covent Garden at 11pm. He reappeared at 3am and instructed the driver to kindly continue on to Guilford.  Either his enunciation or other forces scrambled the message, as some time later the driver woke him up to declare they’d reached Station Road, Ilford.  Nonplussed, Waldie redirected proceedings in a Guilford direction – the diametrically opposite side of the capital and two hours away – where he showered, changed and travelled back in the same cab to CDP, arriving in time for a 9am start.   

A more shadowy, perhaps mythologised legend tells of a young, accident-prone account man named Arthur McCarton from Boase Massimi Pollitt. He was once charged with delivering the logo artwork mechanical for the Courage brewery fleet from Paddington to Tooley Street. The new design was on rigid, polyboard, with delicate type, colour and foil placed with microscopic precision by the studio over painstaking hours, overlayed with a protective sheet of tracing-paper-like film and a layer of black cartridge paper.  The new red, blue and gold logo was to be signed off by the Courage marketing director, Frank Cokayne. Timing was of the essence. Taking a fleet of delivery lorries off the road for a respray was a logistical and expensive headache.  Arthur stepped from the cab in SE1 in the rain and promptly dropped the artwork in a puddle by the kerb.  Guilelessly, he went on to present it in the Courage office’s reception. Dripping, dirty and damaged, Cokayne was appalled by what he saw. Furious, he phoned Arthur’s boss, group account director Geoff Mears back in Paddington, to berate him for all things BMP. Mears jumped in another cab, appearing at the London Bridge headquarters soon after.  He ordered Arthur back to Paddington, commanding him to get the art director Dave Christensen to redo the logo immediately and hoicked the simmering Cokayne off for a soothing, restorative lunch.  Returning some time later, the pair encountered the hapless McCarton sitting back at reception, an uncertain smile across his face and the black paper-covered board across his knees. Lifting the sheet, they were met with a Frankenstein of a job, a jumble of wonky type and smeared colours, the muddy stains still evident and some rather obvious hand-drawn biro squiggles that had attempted to tidy the edges. If anything, it was worse than before. So terrified was Arthur of returning to BMP and asking Christensen to change the board, he had instead gone to Rymans, bought Letraset and colouring pens and done it himself. Rather badly. Courage stayed with BMP.  Arthur didn’t.

The last time I took a black cab, puttering along the Westway above Portobello Road, my fabulous, elderly Jamaican driver, with neatly greying dreads, observed tradition when he cackled good naturedly and with heavily accented irony,  “That’s the trouble with them East Europeans.  Coming over here, taking our jobs,” as yet another Uber purred past us. 

Travels abroad have added richly to my cab life. Martin and I once jumped in a Yellow Cab on 44th Street, and shortly afterwards turned up Fifth, to be faced with a tsunami of traffic snarling towards us.  Our driver did a tyre-screeching, handbrake U-turn on the one-way Avenue, explaining that he’d arrived from Vladivostok two days before and “was just getting to know the city”. On the same trip,  summoning all the street presence of a Wettex, I waved vaguely at another Yellow Cab outside the Algonquin, as we departed from our first ever trip to New York.  The window dropped and blasts of driver hostility were directed towards me. “Ah, hello,” I said, querulously. “I wonder, if it’s not too far out of your way, please could you take us to JFK?”  The pitying look as he jerked his head for us to get in might just as well have said, “Schmuck”.  On another, extraordinary trip, we landed at the southernmost tip of Eleuthera in the Bahamas, a long, thin, 110-mile strip of an Island, to be met by our 80-year-old cab driver in a splendid peaked cap. He drove us in his ancient, bouncing Pontiac, on curtseying shock absorbers, the length of Eleuthera that evening until we reached Harbour Island.  (What happened there will one day be a story in itself.)  As we parted, having enjoyed his company immensely, we asked him what was the secret of his longevity.  After a moment’s deep thought, leaning against the maroon door of his car, he responded with with a grave, one-word answer. “Chicken.”

Away from work, using taxis has gifted us Younis. Twenty years ago, Clare first booked him from the local cab office to take her to studios and the occasional location shoot. From Afghanistan, via Acton, he picked us up with increasing frequency, talking with intense, percussive passion about football management and team structure. He coached youth sides on Sunday mornings.  Gradually, he became a fixture, our default, go-to driver. A few years ago, it was he who would pick up my mother-in-law when her Parkinson’s was galloping, and gently lead, or even carry, her back into her house in Gerrard’s Cross, making her safe and comfortable.  A little more recently, he would scoop up Alice, aged 15, from the milling concert-goers at the Ministry of Sound and other venues, patiently seeking her out among the throngs of ‘yoof’. Eventually, he moved from his home on the Hangar Lane gyratory to a place further west. After years of working silly hours each week, inflicting terrible damage to his back, he now travels all over the world for breaks. We talk to each other on Facebook, across huge distances. In lockdown, his photographs of the green spaces in London’s sprawling, spokey Western approaches have been a revelation.  At New Year, he never fails to bless us all via some medium or other. He grows roses with tender diligence and carefully recorded results. Younis has been – and is – an amazing force for good.

Back in the advertising world, this ends with not so much a cab, as a car story.

In the late 1970s, Charles Saatchi was the proud owner of a brown Rolls Royce. Sleek, urbane and always suited, he radiated a justifiable confidence, given his talent and successes.   It happened that he was giving a lift to a commercials director, Sid Roberson, and they were heading out of London at the Marylebone flyover.  Martin and I were lucky enough to work with Sid, a roughly hewn diamond of a bloke and an extraordinary, profane force of nature. A body-builder who kept his physique almost to the end, he had been the third member of an East End gym, the first two clients being brothers, christened ‘Ronald’ and ‘Reginald’ by their mother, a Mrs Kray.  As Charles Saatchi drove up onto the flyover, the traffic snarled and became stationary. Cars jockeyed forward, stopping and starting. Sitting in the passenger seat, Sid watched as a beaten up wreck of a saloon car tried to cut in front of them and escape down the Paddington slip. Saatchi was having none of it. As the saloon veered across, he surged forwards too.  There was a bang. They had collided. The traffic around them stopped completely.  As Sid told it, in the silence, two huge men got out of the car in front, one holding a monkey wrench and advanced menacingly towards the Saatchi Rolls. Sid was an imposing, real-life Popeye of a man, but he said he was really scared. Next to him, with a steely, unblinking look, Charles Saatchi lowered the driver’s electric window (a rarity back then) a scant inch or two, and spoke quietly, in a way that carried his voice through the gap like a scalpel.

“Go away.  Or I’ll have you killed.”

The two men turned, blank faced, and meekly got back into their car,  disappearing towards Paddington as the traffic started to move.

Like anybody else, I have loved taking cabs. There have been countless rides and hours of absorbing conversation.  On London streets, I miss those opening exchanges, hatted with an orange light, occasioned by a wave and followed by a shrewd appraisal of just how much of a pain-on-board prospect I presented to the man or woman behind the wheel. They always started the same and wonderful way.

Where to, Guv?

A drop.

Often in advertising, with a pitch looming for a wine, spirits or beer brand, the frazzled account director will charge round, asking the team to list their ‘alcohol experience’. I would jot down drinks brands for whom I’d shuffled out an ad or two. Shared with the potential client, I doubt this information made us the least bit more compelling.   

Advertising might appear, at frequent intervals, to run on alcohol, but it also has to sell the stuff.  Some of my associations with booze brands have been enormous fun.  Others less so.  As far as the business went, alcohol lubricated so much of what used to happen, loosening tongues and losing the plot of so many afternoons. In the series Mad Men, much like the earlier Dallas, it’s easier to count scenes where the actors aren’t holding a glass. The show winked at drink as an advertising lubricant.  Its later portrayal in other dramas – seen from a distance – hints at a darker dependence.  

When I started work, the daily point of greatest sobriety in the agency was around 1045am. Recovery from the previous evening would nip in just before a fresh sortie, usually from the Traffic Department, nipped out for ‘Earlies’, as the local hostelries opened. It was a hazy existence and, with a rearview lens, both health-threatening and life shortening, but there were genuine moments of inventive endeavour to accompany the chink of glassware around the Edgware Road. Such intelligence as we had appeared to work even when dissolved in liquid.  

My first conscious memories of alcohol’s existence were the Grants of St James deliveries to Little Downham, when I was about four. The two cardboard boxes of wine my father would order were so thick, they appeared to be made from kevlar and resistant to surface-to-air missiles. Inside were bottles of dark red something that he venerated for months, sometimes years, before they disappeared mysteriously when guests came to dinner and we were asleep. 

Aged sixteen, I was granted summer work at a hotel in Machynlleth, mid Wales, thanks to a distant cousin who ran the place. The Wynnstay Arms was the most remote Trust House Forte outpost in Britain. It was a few miles from the border with Gwynedd, a ‘dry’ county on Sundays in the Seventies. Our sabbaths were bedlam, as dozens of thirsty Gwyneddites crammed into the back bar, emptying pint after pint before closing time, as if beer was going out of fashion.  I would help haul several of them to their feet at periodic intervals to continue their labours.  On quieter evenings, under the watchful eye of Margaret, my fabulous, Joyce Grenfell-like commanding officer,  I served lager to fisherman dynamiters who threw gelignite into trout pools, one missing several fingers, another a hand. When not working in the bar, I was sent to help in the kitchen.  It was run by a complicated chef with a large moustache that waggled as he described how he made porn movies to supplement his income. (“My two girlfriends do it for twenty-five quid a time and Darren does it for free”, he reported, enthusiastically.)  In my brief employment, he was fired for gross misconduct and replaced by a tall Scot called Brian, who displayed the grace of Andy Murray as he flew around the kitchen, putting just the right amount of topspin on his omelettes. Delivering the Blue Plate Special menu to the dining room – a three-course lunch was £1.39 – I managed to spill an entire bowl of scalding mushroom soup into a pensioner’s lap. The old boy looked agonised but was more apologetic than I was. One Saturday, I took a bottle of champagne and two glasses to a newly wedded couple in their room on their honeymoon night.  The man smirked and gave me me a five pound note as a tip.  “Do you really want to give me this?” I asked, incredulously.  He looked at his new wife and then at me. “Well,” was all he said, as he walked towards me and took it back.  I left, tipless.

For two Christmases, as a student, I worked in Victoria Wine at Hazlemere crossroads. It was managed by Mr Muskett, a prototype Wallace (of Grommit pairing) in a burgundy, bri-nylon coat. He wore heavily framed bifocals and his expressive eyebrows agitated at the base camp of a gleamingly bald forehead. The thin fringe around the back was brilliantined and carefully combed.  He drank tea incessantly.  Arthur Muskett (only Mrs Muskett called him by his first name) had a peculiar way of expressing weirdly superior servility to his customers, honed to a mesmeric degree. As I loaded shelves with magnums of Don Cortez Spanish plonk, bottles of  Emva Cream, Martini Rosé and Stone’s Ginger Wine, I’d listen to him agreeing that somebody’s choice of Liebfraumilch was the perfect drop to go with fish fingers.  “Oh, yes, Sir,” he’d say with savage relish.  “Marvellous, it is.  The perfect selection.”  With familiarity, these exchanges became unconvincing. A close inspection of his beady, glittering eyes suggested he wouldn’t care two hoots if Sir or Madam was approaching the till with a bottle of Paraquat weed killer.  Mr Muskett, like his loyal, shrunk-washed wife in her canary yellow work coat, did not drink alcohol at all.   When the returning peal of Bells’ whisky customers, their faces ravaged by over-enthusiastic ringing between visits, staggered into the shop, Mr Muskett would mask his features with a joyful grimace at the potential takings, whilst radiating bat squeaks of furious disapproval at the same time. I always felt that, deep down, he would have been much happier selling bathroom fittings, say, or guns. 

I moved on from Victoria Wine to holiday jobs in a pub.  John Allnutt was the landlord of The White Lion at the top of a long, exhausting hill just outside High Wycombe.  Small, pugnacious and very funny, there was a touch of Oliver Reed about him.  When I repeated a girl’s order back to her at the bar one lunchtime to confirm her request, he overheard me say: “Cointreau and lemonade.” He stormed through from the back with a withering look.  “God,” he groaned, staring at her, “How Luton!“, before disappearing again.  

With questionable assumptiveness, I ran the Brasenose College Wine Society as a student.  We organised a trip to Lamberhurst in Kent to see (Lord) Alfred McAlpine’s retirement project and appreciate his clean, luminous and Germanic white wines in thrilling brown bottles, marshalled in immaculate, concrete buildings that were more NASA space age than English wine experiment.  There was a tantalising, yeasty smell of vineyard promise, with operations that spoke of Teutonic efficiency.  It was all deeply impressive. Back in Oxford, I presided over a tasting evening where, of all possible contenders, we had invited Showerings. The valiant and long suffering rep talked us through the various sugary versions of Babycham and Cherry B as we hooted cruelly with laughter. Awash at the conclusion, I took him and his rather fabulous assistant to dinner at the Randolph Hotel.  Walking them back to their rooms in college, she kindly offered to take me to her bed. Instead, dazzled, I stumbled off to find my own. At yet another event – the BNC Wine Society’s credentials were dubiously classy – we were privileged to enjoy a generous Martini & Rossi evening, with boil-in-the-bag pasta dishes reheated for the occasion to accompany the Rosso, Bianco and – hello old friend – the Rosé.  It was later that night that I realised only nuclear winter can truly remove the smell of vermouth once it’s been sicked up on a pair of slightly pink wool flares, veneered with stale, catering parmesan.        

Of considerably more civilised promise, my presidency granted me access to a remarkable wine tasting at Balliol.  It was conducted by the exceptional Richard Peet, of Corney & Barrow, and attended by a squadron of university dons with considerable heft in their college cheque books. I was one of only four students present.  Richard ‘showed’ around forty different clarets.  As an ignorant arriviste, I watched carefully, to get the hang of protocol.  Those silver fountain things were spittoons.  You should only pour yourself a very small measure. Don’t drink more than you can taste.  And, whatever happens, don’t try the lot. I watched in fascination as around forty old, white men waltzed around a long, bottle-strewn table.  Within twenty minutes, the Regius professor of Medieval History (who had better remain nameless) was spitting magenta coloured rivulets down his tie rather than into the spittoon.  There were some deeply red faces.  Muttered giggling.  Stumbles were evident. Wombling spread.  Richard Peet looked on, with twinkling amusement.  I remember, vividly, tasting what really good claret should taste like, with a particular Chateau Cissac.  Richard Peet explained it to me without complication, fuss or being in the slightest bit patronising. It was an olfactory sensation, a great waft of something bigger, more expansive, altogether more epic.  After the cheap, student wines we bought from Oddbins in the High (Street), it was like walking out of a shed and into a cathedral.  Dispensing with all the cigar, cedar, leather, vanilla and oak descriptive verbiage, my fizzing brain told me – somewhat crudely – that it was just balls-out, brilliantly better. 

All manner of beers, wines and spirits have cropped up in my working life.  Oranjeboom, Long Life and St Christopher’s ahead-of-its-time, alcohol-free lager from Allied Breweries at McCormick’s gave way to Kaltenberg, Mackesons and, later, Boddington’s at BBH.  Martin and I nearly trashed our careers weeks into our association with a subjective camera cinema ad for Beefeater Gin. Looking at it now, it comes across like a poorly translated piece of French surreal cinema, just before the actor murders the film director.  I was sitting opposite Martin when he wrote “Big and horny” against his swift drawing of some antlers.  It became a poster, all over London, for Whitbread’s Moosehead beer. The Glenlivet was a joy of a brief.  Black Tower – a black glass bottle of industrial, lightly alcoholic German promise about as enigmatic as a Henry Cooper punch – was more challenging.  (Graham Watson managed to wangle a bottle/glass/table top shoot for the stuff in the Seychelles. “Lovely light,” he claimed.)   There have been all manner of drinks requiring an advertising shunt in the years since and the chance to write longer form for some truly fabulous brands, particularly The Macallan.  The most characterful and carefully curated of all Scottish whiskies, the people who look after it are an especially admirable tribe.  

Martin once produced a magnum of Chateau Latour from the late 1970s when he and Rosie came to have supper with us in a Hope Cove rental house.  However much it was worth, it tasted even better.  The wine had been gifted to him by the wonderful Terry Lovelock (‘Heineken refreshes the parts other beers cannot reach’), who had been handed it by Frank Lowe, the prescient overseer of not just Collett Dickinson Pearce’s incredible advertising output, but its outstanding, tax-defying cellar. And during my stint in Paddington at Boase Massimi Pollitt, I bought a case of wine from the inimitable John Webster, for three years in a row, at £4 a bottle.  The godfather of so many universally loved commercials – Smash Martians, the Hofmeister Bear, Courage Best ‘Gertcha’, John Smith’s, The Guardian’s ‘Points Of View’ – I particularly liked his take on the rough, likeable red.  “We work all our lives to earn enough to own a small country property with a tiny vineyard and the chance to live like a French peasant,” he said, “When we could, of course, just go off and live like a French peasant in the first place.”  

With a frustrating break this last year,  for obvious reasons, we have bottled two 34 litre demijohns of prosecco for the last decade and more, under the close tutelage of Italian friends and neighbours in Cirvoi.   Valdobbiadene, the epicentre of proper prosecco production and the Glera grape, is about forty minutes away.  We pay the princely sum of €2 a litre to a grower there and squish metal grip caps onto eighty-five sterilised bottles a day or two later at home.  Flat, slightly sweet and about 8% alcohol when bottled at some point before Easter (always – critically – on a rising moon), three months later it is sparkling, dry and about 10.5% abv.  It’s not exactly the height of sophistication, but the cloudy glasses of joy fuel conversations noon and night with all and sundry in the year that follows.    

Like mine, I’m sure everybody’s ‘alcohol experience’ goes on and on, in very different versions of very different lists.  I think this has rambled long enough.   Time to open the bar.

Watson and Cozens.

There were all sorts of reasons why I chose advertising as a way to keep roof tiles over my head. None were particularly coherent. Most of the ‘push’ reasons were because my dad had – sort of – been there and because I couldn’t think of anything else to do.

But there were some genuine ‘pull’ reasons too. There were advertisements that we talked about as a family at home. Or that my friends mentioned as cool and admirable.

“It’s frothy, man,” mimicked my brother and several friends, when assuming the persona of the Cresta Bear. I’d learn about John Webster, the patron saint of hilariously loveable, breakthrough animals that spoke or sang their way into popular culture, years later. He gave birth to both the Cresta and Hofmeister Bears, John Smith’s pogo-ing dog, the Kia Ora birds, the rabbit-rabbit of Chaz’n’Dave’s Courage Bitter’s plink plonk nostalgia and so many others.

“Just the weather for dark glasses”, stated Guinness, with two dimpled pints of the stuff pouting seductively at us on hot summer days from High Wycombe’s poster sites. We drank in the promise, from rackety bicycles, on exhausting rides up and down Buckinghamshire hills. The ‘Dark’ poster campaign, from J Walter Thompson, was a brilliant series that had my friends enthralled. We would chase down each new addition to the fold. “Summer pints. And some are bottled,” had my brother and I repeating the headline to each other in wordplay wonderment.

There was another train of advertising that I didn’t discuss with people I knew. Stuff that I saw, perhaps a few years later, as a student, that was enthralling. Smart, assumptive, quotable, it was brilliantly memorable. I didn’t, with the insecurity of nineteen-year-old youth, want to confess my undying admiration for an advertisement to my peers. But I loved it.

I didn’t know that the examples that I cherished, that stayed with me and that I admired, came from a very small stable of talents. Broadly speaking, the advertising agencies responsible were Collett Dickinson Pearce, TBWA, Boase Massimi Pollitt and, as I first dipped a toe into the exciting advertising world, Bartle Bogle Hegarty.

The individuals involved were even fewer and farther between. One pair were not only prolific, they were maddenly unforgettable. It wasn’t until 1986 that I fully appreciated who they were.

Graham Watson and Mike Cozens. Art director and copywriter. Professional Yorkshireman and Jack-the-Lad-sarf-Lundenner. Corkscrew haired, avuncular, one-eyed artistic genius and suave, tennis playing, James-Caan-as-Sonny-in-The Godfather-with-a-cockney-twang words person. Together, they were unreachably brilliant.

Lego’s ‘Kipper’ was, for two decades or more, the industry’s favourite ever TV commercial. The voice over isn’t actually Tommy Cooper, because Tommy Cooper’s agent advised Mike and Graham, “For Christ’s sake, don’t use Tommy. He can’t read and he’ll totally screw it up. Use Roger Kitter instead.” So they did. And it worked. It was recognised as the year’s best commercial by every awards ceremony that mattered.

Kipper

When John Hegarty lured Mike and Graham to Bartle Bogle Hegarty, they began work on both Audi and Levi’s. Given what was to come later, “There are rivets…and there are Levi’s rivets” doesn’t glow quite as brightly in the rear view mirror as some of the later ads. At the time it appeared, ‘though, they set up Clint Eastwood’s ‘The Gauntlet’ and similar movies around the UK with an epic cinema ad swagger that stayed with us squits in the audience far longer than the main feature’s storyline.

They produced loads of extraordinary work both together and separately during their careers, none more iconic than the Benson and Hedges surreal imagery that transcended advertising and didn’t just ape art, but became it.

Audi was in a different class altogether. While John Hegarty had hoovered up the words ‘Vorsprung durch Technik’ from the front of the Ingolstadt factory for advertising use, Mike and Graham played with the notion and married it to Geoffrey Palmer’s voice. To this day, I still don’t know who should really be credited with casting him. Given how many hours, if not days, I spent with him in radio studios in the years that followed, testing his indefatigable patience, I really should do. The Cozens and Watson Audi commercials that resulted still stand up today. The cars, perhaps understandably, less so.

My personal favourite, at the time, viewed from outside the stockade of the business altogether, was ‘Shopping’. It was seldom mentioned in the same breath as ‘Glider’ or, particularly, ‘Villa’ (many peoples’ highpoint) but something in the tone nailed it for me. That gloriously understated superiority of tone made for a smile out loud.

Mike and Graham were never less than incredibly generous when I crept in to BBH four years after it was formed. Graham had been the man who showed our portfolio to John Hegarty in the first place. I owe him my first writing job. Within a few months, I’d taken a tabby kitten of him, called Spider, and a lot of helpful advice. I went away on a BBH art’s club outing with him and others for a week to a sodden Tuscany. He was an unpredictable uncle who never stopped inventing, drawing and mangling several thoughts into perilously navigated sentences. “The Citroen Deja-Vue,” for example, just one of hundreds of memorable Watsonisms. Now in Sydney, Australia, his painting continues as strongly as his Yorkshire accent.

Mike was less extrovert but an easy presence when you made it over the drawbridge. His turn of phrase – and ability to fire out the best (and sadly unrepeatable) insults – were the soundtrack of a clutch of Soho lunch spots and evening sessions outside the Dock and Duck in Frith Street. His was the first leaving do after I joined BBH when he went off to try directing commercials. His goodbye present was the real back seat from a bus, on wheels, in faded, worn fabric. It represented a place he’d made all his recreational own on BBH party days out. A few months later, he returned to the agency to continue writing. I’m not sure what happened to the bus seat.

[For advertising historians, Mike’s interview on Dave Dye’s brilliant blog tells a fuller professional story: https://davedye.com/2016/01/29/mike-cozens-interview/ ]

There were other pairings of art director and copywriters at the time who have been justly and properly celebrated over the years. Godfrey and Brignull. Waldie and Lovelock. (Waldie and several people, come to think of it, Mike included.) Horton and Foster. Tilby and Leeves. Delaney and Dunn. Webster and Budgen (a brief, brilliant association). Hegarty and Nokes. Abbott and Brown. I could go on. And on. And on, to include Trott and Smith…

But, all said, in Watson and Cozens, there was never a pair who made it look so easy – or so much fun.

Pith and Skin.

IMG_2478

Something happened in March

Since when

I have measured out the months in marmalade.

Four jars, going on five,

My mornings sharply bittersweet.

A cheerful, liquid mahogany

Spooned from pots,

Some a decade old.

The recipe demands a spoon of salt;

Perversely, oddly defiant.

A definitive season for this

Of all years.

The little ritual.

A sticky puddle.

Never quite as expected.

Sharply memorable,

One day

I will look back to when

I measured out these months in marmalade.

August 27th, 2020

Silence and fury.

rolls_royce_stor

David Ogilvy wrote one of the most famous car advertisements of all time.  An ode to the near silence within a Rolls-Royce, practically every aspiring copywriter knew the headline off by heart.  I know I did.

Many years later, as we faced the fire of the Audi account squad, Martin and I remembered this and presented a variation, fully aware of the original gem. It was intended as an affectionate homage, riffing off the Ogilvy block. We thought the in-joke might appeal.  In truth, the Audi 100 desperately needed some personality, the one member of the Ingolstadt family to have suffered a charisma bypass.  Our ad was approved, despite the clumsy use of the non-specific ‘thing’ word. It ran once or twice in The Observer.  In the photo, it’s actually me sitting in the driving seat.  I wore that noisy 1980s jacket for years afterwards.

Herr Becks

A few days later, John Bartle received a scribbled note through the post.  The writing was scratchy and angry.  There was no doubting who had sent it.  The ‘Page 10’ in the book mentioned is dedicated to that self-same Rolls Royce advertisement.

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Eyebrows shot up around Bartle Bogle Hegarty.  We really hadn’t intended to raise the great man’s ire.  Those capital letters spoke of intense irritation.

David Ogilvy

David Ogilvy in Touffou.

I never actually met David Ogilvy.  I wish I had. I never did find out if he really was that angry.   Twenty years on from that note, I joined the London office of Ogilvy and Mather in Canary Wharf.  Not long after – in one of advertising’s stranger quirks – I became acting managing director of his agency.  I’m not sure he would have recognised it.  Across the O&M offices sprinkled throughout the world, a fanatical devotion to his every word held sway. Each reception was plastered with his quotes, constantly invoked to support all manner of conflicting managerial initiatives.  I’m pretty sure he would have hated their doublespeak interpretations.

There were some brilliant people and moments of real accomplishment.  However, a cocktail of separate companies within the same building made for a cat’s cradle of a business, complicated by reporting lines to different clients, in different countries, and to different ‘hub’ Ogilvy offices.  The sense was often of wrestling with an enemy within, rather than tackling the challenges from without.

In my eight years at the London branch of O&M, one joy was the opportunity to mentor small groups of WPP Fellows.  Across Sir Martin Sorrell’s 400 companies, some 15 to 20 stellar graduates were awarded places each Spring.  They would spend three consecutive years in three of those companies, sometimes changing discipline,  often changing continents.  It made for one of the best career start schemes ever.

The young men and women were selected after multiple interviews with pairs of interrogators. Meeting the shortlisted final forty or so candidates, I was convinced any one of them could have run a country.  Had the roles been reversed, I might just have scraped in as a janitor.

The programme was run by Jon Steel.  WPP’s strategic director, the idea was that he’d manage the Fellows “in his spare time”.  The countless hours he dedicated were hewn from a schedule that left little room to scratch his nose, let alone do normal things, like sleep. Steely was a modest god, blessed with an avuncular manner. He still is.  To this day, I have never heard anybody deliver bad news, a negative critique or a flat rejection as acceptably or empathetically.  You’d dial him in to tell you there are only days left to live.

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Hugh Baillie and Jon Steel in mafia pose, Touffou.

Jon decided that one stop-off during the WPP Fellows’ extraordinary 36 months of induction should be Chateau Touffou, in South West France.  David Ogilvy bought it in 1966.   An 12th Century, moated castle near Poitiers, immaculately restored by his widow, Herta, it is almost as formidably elegant and enchanting as she is.

Herta

Herta and a WPP Fellows tour.

I travelled there with the Fellows, by coach, from Farm Street in Mayfair.  The journey took eleven hours. (Jon viewed the road time as valuably bonding.) The briefing for the pitches that were to happen over the following  days began as we drove away at 5.30am.

Rory

Rory Sutherland. A wiki selfie.

Various luminaries, such as the wonderful Rory Sutherland, the incisive John O’Keeffe or the mind-expanding Tim Hollins, would fly in to help mentor or deliver inspiring talks. I heard Jeremy Bullmore, the sage of J. Walter Thompson and advertising’s greatest philosopher, repeat the same speech, word for word, in separate years. I would pay to hear him deliver it twenty times more.

Between these talks and the hours of debate, diligence and despair, the Fellows were summoned to fabulous four-course meals, lunchtime and evening, lubricated with steady rivers of red wine. By the evening of day three, the assembled would greet the groaning cheese board with the haunted look of religious martyrs. Most would still succumb.  There might not be any sleep ahead, but perhaps there was space for a little more époisses.

Come the last morning, hollow-eyed and light headed, the teams would present to the invited panel, including the senior client from the business in question.  21st Century marketing presentations would bounce off the 12th Century walls. In the last, sleep-deprived hours beforehand, coherence occasionally proved elusive and egos sometimes clashed, but the majority were eye-wateringly good. Jon and the panel would deliver their verdicts, champions were celebrated, the less successful consoled and, with a flurry of goodbyes and sincere thank-yous to Herta, everyone would depart.

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For my final visit to the chateau, I was housed in the tower across the courtyard. After sitting with my quartet, wrestling with their project through a long night, I crept back for a couple of hours’ sleep. Placing my elderly wristwatch on a chair by the bed that was easily four hundred years old, I stared blearily up at the dark ceiling. In the pre-dawn gloom, a reminder of David Ogilvy’s acute powers of observation slipped gently into my brain.

At 6am, the loudest noise in the Medieval castle came from the ticking of my grandfather’s watch.

watch

Drum solo.

kit 606

For the last nine years, we have played at the 606 Club in Chelsea at least once a year.  2020’s events have meant delaying our tenth anniversary appearance.  The Philip Dodd Quartet’s adoring public – long suffering, charitable and wonderfully patient – might secretly be rather relieved.

Our first ever concert was in the Spring of 1980.  A student band, we played in the music room of Jesus College, Oxford.  (Our saxophonist, Paul Mason, was to join us a year later.)  These days we stay more or less in the same musical bar together. Back then, as if on a raggle-taggle pub-crawl,  we visited the same bars but often at different times. I’ve always been grateful that improvised music is so forgiving a medium.

I would hit things as a child.  Oil drums.  Biscuit tins.  Pillows.  I loved the thud.  The percussive rallentando of two sticks dancing to different pressures in my hands was a joy.  I dreamed of snare drums and shiny metal fixtures.  I would keep a rolling, chattering drum beat going with my teeth during lessons.  With the £100 my grandmother left me, I bought an ageing and ill-matched white drum kit from a second-hand store in Cambridge. My parents suffered the noisy consequences with resilience.

At school, I was especially inspired by the drummer in the talented and avant-garde Keith’s Mum.  They were a remarkable four-piece rock band; inventive and accomplished.  Alasdair Palmer is a now a celebrated parliamentary speech writer, journalist and commentator.  Back then, he was my idol.  On Saturday afternoons, I would run from lunch to the music school and hammer away on a scrap merchant’s array of percussive wood and metal for hours on end. I wanted to be as good as him. My loss of hearing can’t just be put down to genetic inheritance. It probably dates to those prolonged sound storms.

Towards the end of my school career, I drummed for untidy rock bands where musical careers other than mine were born.  I missed my entrance cue during Glen Miller’s In The Mood when playing for the school brass orchestra, embarrassing in front of so many parents.  My compass was always feel and instinct, rather than sight reading and logic. In the holidays, I would stand for hours in Percy Prior’s in High Wycombe’s Octagon shopping centre, staring at hi-hat cymbals with lovestruck yearning.  I was infatuated with their golden glimmer.

I became a student.  A student with a drum kit was suddenly currency.  I was in demand.  For Kevin Duncan’s early, punky Inrage concerts, I scrabbled away playing three minute wonders in slightly less than two.  The beautiful Rebecca Willis still managed to enunciate every word, her waterfall of fabulous hair diverting attention from the runaway train of our time-keeping.  For Adam Blackburn’s The Alicats, a cocktail jazz ensemble, I measured out my quiet taps like an anxious Swiss chemist, desperate not to lose the formula of counting up to four in a Frank Sinatra song. In the septet funk band, Straight No Chaser, I relaxed and learned from brilliant players. Two of them went straight to the Royal Academy on musical scholarships.  Audiences rose happily to our renditions of Stevie Wonder, Bill Withers and Average White Band numbers. I met Rick Bolton, the guitarist, who still teaches the instrument, in Ealing Common post office the other day, after a gap of four decades.

It was with the Philip Dodd Quartet that I found my metier.  Here was a band where the casual observer might think that the piano, double bass and saxophone were following the drummer’s timing.  In actual fact, it was entirely the reverse.  Forgiving and experimental, playing with Philip, Graham and Paul was a glorious liberation. In conversations without words, my role was to listen, create empathetic connection and to highlight, almost as a thought was being enunciated, the musical expressions of my band mates, whilst keeping something vaguely approaching a beat. I didn’t fulfil my job description very often, but when all the bits were working, it was intoxicating.   Despite occasional sabbaticals, some of several years, we have rehearsed and performed around four or five times a year since that first appearance.

In jazz, there is always the question of the drum solo.  Some people love them. I’ve never, really, been a fan.   I’d rather hide at the back, obscured by cymbals, contributing but not standing out. A paralysingly unassuming nature is the enemy of extrovert display. As a teenager in the 1970s, listening to all kinds of music, we were supposed to worship Carl Palmer’s technical tsunamis as he rotated on his stool around a strobing kit in the middle of some Emerson, Lake and Palmer onanism or other. I couldn’t see the point.  Neil Peart of Rush (I hated heavy metal but admired his musicality) was more interesting, but I still found the solos a bit dull.   Cozy Powell was a drummer who couldn’t muster up a proper band and was left bashing away to fill out their absence. Drum solos, to me, were the bit where other musicians took a break and the audience got bored.

Regarding jazz musicians, I went to see Elvin Jones (of John Coltrane fame) and Eddie Gladden stoking Dexter Gordon’s boilers, both at Ronnie Scott’s. I listened carefully to Jack De Johnette on record.  Most remarkably, Philip introduced me to the Norwegian Jon Christensen, one of the ECM label’s giants and drummer of choice for Keith Jarrett.  I spoke to him once, with Philip, for a few moments at the Bracknell Jazz Festival, when he was touring with Miroslav Vitous. A performer of subtle, exquisite genius, he could paint light with dabs of a stick and sweeps of a brush like no-one I had ever heard. He remains my all-time favourite player.  My pale, attempted imitations of his style weren’t just faint but woefully see-through.  Trying to emulate his skill in a solo was futile.

In PDQ concerts, I would baulk at the prospect of solitary exposure, perhaps trotting out one hurried and rather grudging whizz around the skins during a concert.  Even nowadays when Paul, the saxophonist, raises an eyebrow and holds up his fingers to suggest swapping fours in a tune’s closing furlongs, I still find myself hesitating.  The three of them understand.

606 just us     PDQ May 17

Solos do happen, nevertheless.  Confidence can get the better of reticence. Those I tap out are never perfect and never will be, but they occasionally, sort of, work. Here below is an unmastered recording of us playing a Nicola Conte tune, Nefertiti, at the 606 in 2012.  There are plenty of glitches in the very live and very raw capture.  We’re relaxing at the end of a set and it shows.  But there’s something of the best of us – a determinedly amateur band with pursuits in other directions – hidden in there somewhere.

Husum4

                                                         Philip Dodd Quartet, Husum, Germany, 2018