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 Mike Reid 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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                                                         Philip Dodd Quartet, Husum, Germany, 2018

In passing.

Ealing Common

Ealing Common, 6.58am, Friday, 15th May 2020

These things I’ll miss.

The collective inactivity of the City.

Walking down the middle of local streets without fear of a car. At 6.45am. Or at any time of the day.

Blossom in the morning as we walked the Ealing pavements.

The sense of achievement when buying something you wanted.   A loaf of bread as a prize.

The shy eye acknowledgement.  Our Somali lady in Tescos who made me well up three days in when she looked at me and said, please take care of yourself.  It should have been the other way ‘round.

The new discoveries.  Footpaths.  Cemeteries.  Bakeries.

The sunshine.  It kept coming back.  And back.

Local shops I never knew about.  The Lebanese guys at the end of the road became daily friends.  The Kurds fifty yards beyond. Medina, beyond that, a store hitherto unvisited but, I think, Iraqi.  Amazingly well stocked.  The chat a social service like you would not believe.

The security guy at our little local Tesco.  Unfailingly courteous, polite, smiling and looking for the alleviating joke. Five twelve hour shifts a week. Working his wise, African face to convey calm and peace for every single minute he counted us in. Indefatigable.

The still, silent calm.  No traffic.  No hum.

The Gunnersbury parakeets in full squawk.  The starlings.  The thrushes.  The alarm clock birds and wrens that sing like you can’t find their off switch.

The realisation from phone checking that you were walking 30 miles a week. Minimum.

The polite queues at M&S.  We trusted something about the place.  It repaid.

The eye contact with Amazon drivers after they had rung the bell.  A second’s longer facial connection.  Thank you’s that were that much more sincere.

The sense, in our family held captive, that this is what we have.  The four of us. However much we talked of irritation, a real love.  It was that simple.

The evasion of negative news.  Everyone knows it’s shit. Why rub it in?

The lack of planes. We could, in what was normal, see three or four at a time at any moment.  Now we were seeing one a day, if that.

Zoom.  Initially connecting, great for work and transmit.  (Latterly, rather hard work.)

Menu planning.  Absorbing to start, a grave responsibility as time went on.

Sneaking to the bottle bank.  Can’t leave that guilty glass-and-cans mountain for the Tuesday morning council stalwarts.

The play of light on grass as leaves came out and created shadows. Nature’s own daguerreotype.

Streamed Mass from South Ruislip.  Perceptive. Passionate.  Illuminating. A brilliant priest.

The narrowing of the universe.

The simplicity of necessities, not niceties.

The love.

The open-pored meeting with the world.

The indulgence of being able to taste the moment without distraction.

Vivid.  Crystal. Real.

How precious.

One-man dynasty.

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                                                                                                           Photo: Rosie Barnes, April 2020

Everyone needs a little luck.  Perhaps my greatest – and happiest – piece of luck ever was to be paired with Martin Galton by John Hegarty.

We were an arranged professional marriage.  Plonked with each other (he: art director, me: copywriter) at Bartle Bogle Hegarty in 1986, we shared an office for nearly nine years and then again, later, at Leagas Delaney.  We continue to laugh together to this day.

If I start trying to describe Martin’s strengths, inventiveness, humanity and energy, we’d be here forever.  He is one of the greatest forces of good in my life.  Instead, during our years as a pair, a picture gallery appeared at our office door.  It became a sort of fixture.

There were in-jokes and specific references that will be lost to many.  That said, a quick skim might provide a sense of Martin Galton, the man, and the lives we led. With apologies for picture quality, spelling, immature childishness and typewriter-era mistakes, here is a reproduction of our office wall from 1986 onwards, more or less in full.  Martin evidently had many relations…

Founding Father

Charming Continentals

Danse De Merde

Tip Top Stores

Styrofoam

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Jimmy

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Kooky Producer

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Tooloose Le Topman

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Martin 60th birthday 2

Captain Martin

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Love descends.

Ma & PaProb 196415 July 1984  IMG_9176

Neither obituary nor eulogy, the following is a long, backward look. I do not have an exclusive.  My childhood was with Amanda, Julian and Emma. They have equal shares in the memories, with none of us owning more than the others. Together, we possess something very powerful, in perpetuity, and nothing can change our respective 25% shareholdings.

This is about my mother.  Our mother.  Jocelyn Genesta St George Awdry, nee Poole.  (‘St George’ because her father wanted another boy.)

She died on 20th January, 1990, five days before her sixtieth birthday.  This year, she has been absent for more than half my life. Trying valiantly to sum her up at her funeral, the vicar, John Eastgate, spoke of the dented brass handle on our larder door in Little Downham’s kitchen.  It was where my mother kept rubber bands. A tangle of various hues and lengths, they spoke of a thrift that long preceded recycling.  I don’t think we were ever without a rubber band. The cupboard handle in our kitchen at home today is similarly festooned with the things, a directly inherited habit from her.

The vicar’s observation recognised my mother’s instinct to value everything. Nothing was ever wasted.  In the larder itself, really a cupboard with a vent to the outside world, she kept saucers, ramekins and bowls of leftovers, from a spoon of white sauce to orphaned brocoli, often several days old.  There were bottles, jars and packets dating back decades.  Brown & Poulson cornflour packets approached their late teens. Bisto gravy granules had ossified into stalactites. Sago of pensionable age sat heavily in a glass jar, next to the semolina. In the kitchen table draw were lethal, bone handled knives, most of them savagely rusty, that had found their way to us from aged aunts. Ma would never think of throwing them away. Whittling away at bits of stick with their mottled blades, I cut myself frequently as a small boy. She herself had no feeling in the top of one of her fingers, having lopped it off as a child.  Her governess held the stump onto her finger until they reached the doctor and it was sewn back on. You’d never have noticed and she barely mentioned it. It wasn’t her first hand injury either.  When her brother asked her to put her hand over the barrel of his air rifle, aged about six, she trustingly complied.  A jet propelled rose thorn embedded itself in her palm when he pulled the trigger.

After my parents were married, my mother went to the local shop in London and bought half a tomato.  It was all she could afford, an event inscribed in Awdry family lore.  This was a woman who had grown up with personal servants and a nanny.  Her dad – the grandfather I never met – ploughed his way through two fortunes he hadn’t earned with a recklessness born of a refusal to engage with the real world. Instead, he dragged his family to impossibly remote places, exposing them to dramatic impoverishment.  My mother studied the broader pictures of these journeys profoundly.  There was a long summer in Finland with a family who, apart from their lakeside, wooden hut, owned nothing. In Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), she attended a local, privileged school but absorbed a wider perspective.  Her father took the family off to the ‘wrong’ side of Zanzibar, an island where he attempted clove growing with a spectacular lack of success. From living alongside people with very little, she had an eye for the underdog. It translated into fiercely protective behaviour of the vulnerable and a profound belief in giving more than she received.

She hated conflict. Thoroughly unassuming except when singing (she sang in a choir under Thomas Beacham),  hers was a crystal, soprano voice.  It was clear to us four children that she could sing the rest of Hazlemere Church into submission in seconds. Her soaring descants embarrassed me, by drawing attention to our pew, but left the rest of the congregation with shining eyes. She never, ever sought to be the centre of attention but loved a crowd in the family home.

We four children were absolutely equals. You couldn’t slide a cigarette paper between the even distribution of her affections. God-fearing, with an unshakeable belief,  she would say her prayers every night before bed. It was a quiet faith, without sanctimony. While our father was prone to affected petty snobbisms and delighted in the layers of English society, she took everyone she came across as equal.  Digging bean trenches or re-roofing the green shed with Harry Granville, our fabulously grumpy gardener, their teamwork was built on parity. Chatting with our cleaner, Mrs Cross (born Lizzie Rackstraw and who had worked ‘in service’ as a maid), the two would gossip, whilst whatever dirt had been missed last week was smeared about the house with diligent insouciance.  Mrs Cross would flap her duster, with blinking, owlish concentration. Later the two of them would drink milky coffee together in the kitchen, my mother patiently nodding at the latest, improbably breathless events in the Cross household, disclosed from behind double-glazed glasses of startling magnification.

My mum was a lover of the natural world, the country, a great gardener and botanist. Commissioned by the RHS to throw a yard-square wire frame about the local area and  record every species of flora within it for a national survey, she took the responsibility seriously, noting down what was growing each time in exhaustive detail. She knew more about wild flowers than anybody I have ever met.  Every guest who came to stay was greeted with small vases of them in their bedrooms at Little Downham.  With Glanville, she coaxed a vegetable garden a tad smaller than a tennis court into teaming productivity.  We would be sent to pick greens for Sunday lunch or raspberries from the willowy canes dividing the patch from the back drive. Potatoes winked in their raised banks, runner beans cascaded down from their bamboo towers and parsley tufted thickly under the cherry tree. Picking the annual cherry crop with her, as we leaned out from ladders and buckling branches, was both a ritual and a slightly risky highlight. The year we weighed 100 lbs from that one tree, in wicker baskets hung from the branches on butcher’s hooks, was especially triumphant. The same rituals were repeated in October when we picked cascades of Bramley cooking apples from the hollowed out, aged tree that didn’t know the meaning of the word retirement.

An endlessly inventive cook, thrifty, with flair, and who slyly introduced us all to nose-to-tail eating  (heart served as ‘duck’, liver, kidneys, sweetbreads and brains), she would also serve up pasta with butter and Bovril at lunchtime.  Coming home to the kitchen from primary school, it seemed that more often than not I walked into a warm fug of biscuit-making or cake baking.  Little golf balls of sticky,  raw dough were squished down with a fork onto trays before appearing as Melting Moments from the oven, 15 minutes later. Homemade ginger biscuits outnumbered all others.  Wonky vanilla sponge halves were evened out with cream and jam grouting, plastered delicately into double-storey cakes. She appreciated good food enormously, with a forensic memory for every course of every meal ‘out’ she and my father had ever eaten.  She loved cream.  On high and holy days, she produced the most extraordinary triumphs from an eccentric, electric oven with a self-deprecating curtsey. She was our font of all sustenance.

Love poured out of her. I remember her anguish for Mrs Stewart, an eighty year-old lady, the first time I ever went on a Meals-On-Wheels round with her.  A desperate, struggling-to-cope pensioner who, seemingly, had absolutely nothing to live for, the poor woman started ululating in groaning anguish. My mother talked her into calmness with empathy, sympathy and compassion.

She – Jocelyn –  had clear blue eyes, auburn hair and was incapable of lying. As with any child’s memory of their mum, my mental snapshots re-occur, a carousel of unrelated, vivid, visual captures, that make for myriad image traces but never quite the full picture. The sequencing breaks down too.

I can see her head above water, as she swam out into Rooska Bay, in the remote South West of Ireland, to see whether a distant floating object was a missing family shoe.  It wasn’t.  It probably took her fifteen minutes of hard breast stroke, through thick seaweed, only to discover that it was a bit of wood.

Bottling homemade wine with her at the kitchen table, several years after it should have been, and labelling it with her signature handwritten labels, I can see her grinning with the complicit mischief of making something alcoholic, from the garden, with one of her children.  We four children drank a bottle of her blackberry wine together in September 2017, made 35 years previously.  It was – genuinely – fabulous, an aged Madeira softened from its hedgerow beginnings to elegant and measured old age.

Walking the dogs with my mother during school holidays, in Cockshott Wood and around the farm beyond Hazlemere Recreation Ground, her face would light up with the discovery of an orchid, which she’d leave reverently in its sanctuary, or a scattering of mushrooms or, perhaps, a giant puffball, which would be carefully picked and held in the scoop of her walking jacket. In term time,  she came to see us in endless, undistinguished sports matches, the journeys often taking hours out of her day.  She never protested. Many mornings of early childhood, we would sit, arms hunched round our pyjamas, on the green carpet of my parents bedroom, huddling in the glow of the lethal electric fire. I remember listening to the fzzzpppttt of her hairspray can, observing her glamour at the curtained dressing table, as she readied herself for the day.

Later, we’d all notice her falling asleep in front of the television during the BBC news. It was a habit as ingrained as her patient cooking of streaky bacon, cut at a thin Number Four by Mr Ford at the grocer’s in the village, for my father’s breakfast for twenty-five years.  Or there would be the occasional times she would light a Gauloises cigarette, just for the smell of France, an evocation of her time there as a teenager and earlier. (She had escaped the country with her family, when their fishing trip was interrupted by the arrival of the Second World War. They slipped into Spain and took a boat home.)

There were poems that she recited and Joan Walsh Anglund books that she read aloud (“It is night.”).  Old man, Michael-Finnegan-begin-again’s travails with whiskers on his chin (again) would be recounted as she towelled us dry out of the bath.  Rupert Brooke’s “tunnel of green gloom”, evoking Granchester but penned in a German city cafe, takes me straight to one place, which is to the sound of her voice.

Daily, she would clean out the fire and ‘do’ the coke-fired boiler, jobs she hated, but she adored bonfires.  Laurel, chestnut leaves and the branches from eight, dangerous larch trees went up in happy smoke at the bottom of our garden, near the rabbit and guinea pig hutches and next to the compost heap.  Tending a garden fire was possibly one of her favourite occupations, losing herself in a sort of dreamy contemplation on darkening autumn evenings.

I can also see her on a December evening when she told me, from a bed in Westminster Hospital,  that she’d never walk again.  Her voice broke at the end of the sentence.  The tumour on her spine had done its horrible work. A few days before, she’d taken her last ever walk, snipping fronds from the decorative Cypress tree closest to the house for the advent table. A week or two later, when she had been brought home to our sitting room, we watched her fluttering eyes as the morphine took over to manage the pain.  In her last days of lucidity, I remember her saying that she had had a good night and that, in the dark, she had a strong feeling of calm descend and that it was all going to be alright. There was nothing to be afraid of.  It was a testament to her faith.

It is easier to remember the happier pictures.

Walking up the garden path at Little Downham from the garage, in the soft breath of a summer evening, having picked up my father from Wycombe station, our parents would pass a compendium of landmarks that signposted our little universe.  There was the lilac tree, the herbaceous border with all its catmint, the pear tree and the pond, and they would tread the crazy-paved flagstones and the gravel to our garden door, framed by rustling wisteria which my father attacked on Saturday mornings.  The two of them loved each other with a love that 37 years of marriage speaks to the world.  There were moments of stress, money worry, tension and fractiousness but long, long hours of understanding, complicity and partnership that my mother brokered and built, with patience, tolerance and fortitude.  They laughed with each other a lot.

Jocelyn Awdry was not perfect and would have been horrified to be considered as such. She was certainly no saint and nor should recounting her life turn her into one.  Instead, to we four children, she was our mum.  She fulfilled the role outstandingly.

We loved her.  But never quite as much as she loved us.

19th September 2017

Written leading up to Mothering Sunday, 2020, in a time of Coronavirus.

Fear and Loathing in Bristol. 8.06.1984

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The easily offended should look away. The following is from another age. 

In 1984,  I was 23, an account man at McCormick Publicis in the Edgeware Road and – evidently – under the influence of Hunter S Thompson. Six of us took a train from London to Bristol. It seemed prudent to join our Allied Breweries client at the Lager Festival. This was handwritten in the days afterwards.  The change, 35 years on, is that it’s typed. (One or two spellings corrected too.) 

The six McCormick’s people are now, sadly, reduced to five. Chris Ward died much too young on 7th July, 2019.  Mike Brugman, Pete Watkins, Andrew Hawkins, Mark Harvey and I remain in the same pools syndicate, a 35-year-old triumph of optimism over experience. The photos date from back then.

  Chris      Mike       Pete       Andrew       Mark               

S M A L L    B E G I N N I N G S

We weren’t out of the building before the craziness began to take hold. We stepped out into the overcast morning and it hit us like a warm blanket: the day had all the promise of a hot belter – you know the kind – that only mad dogs and advertising men venture out into; raw, crazed and manic.

We walked purposefully. Or, at least, fairly purposefully, towards the taxi rank, Brugman drawing on his cigarette and looking warily at the rest of us.  Mad Mike was known to burn on a short fuse and a couple of Stellas and we weren’t sure of his mood – so we forced ourselves to make interested comments about Greasa’s slacks, creased after a frenzied drive in the B.M. at breakneck speed down the Holiday Inn ramp.

The heat was building, but if any of us had known the terrors that awaited us, there’s little doubt we’d have stayed.

But we forced the pace and took cabs for the station.  The drivers gave us that we-don’t-like-your-kind look and took us several extra blocks to raise the fare.  What the hell; we had money – other people’s money – and adrenalin to burn.

“When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro,” murmured Waz.  It was a phrase that was to burn itself into our minds, torturing the innermost chambers of hell that we chose to call intelligence during the alcohol-soaked hours that were to follow.

“Possibly,” croaked Harvey, moving uneasily through the crowd in some pretty suspect deck shoes.

T H E   T E R R I B L E   T R A I N   R I D E

We made for the diner car and took up stations: Brugman on the trash can, Greasa blocking the door.  Watkins was screaming already, and you could sense trouble in the air as the other passengers stared fixedly at the sports pages as they waited in line. Highbrow, low profile Hawkeye took time out to look trapped and helpless, but deep down we all knew he was rotten to the core like the rest of us.

As we started to roll, Watkins forced Guinness and bacon sandwiches on us. When some half-arsed, crazy, gibbering dingbat demands such things, there’s no refusal.  Down, slowly, and then less slowly, it went; like warm carb-grease and blotting paper.  An assault like that makes you and your digestion nervous, and the country didn’t help. We were city boys, cruising out to the big, blue, lager-filled yonder and jumpy at the wide open space and sunlight.  All except Harvo, who stays in some weird commune down south, but despite his bourgeois efforts to keep us hip, things got tense.  The swearing quota was up, and we were underway.  A run into the unknown.

The empties were piling up and we had a scrapyard on our hands when Brugman started his fit.

“The time,” he screamed. “Fuck. Nine o’clock. Oh my god.”  We shifted to give him space to stretch out in hapless panic.  Five half-cut executives are no match for a crazy Stella drinker when he’s missed an appointment. We never found out what it was, this assignation in a remote office somewhere, but the mood was scary now.  You could tell, as the party began filing repeatedly into the john, sometimes two at a time.

A   T R I P   O N   S C R U M P Y

We shunted in Parkway – or it may have been Templemeads – before we knew it, and were all set to continue our run to the outer reaches of Wales and the crazed land of the Celt, until Watkins shrieked, “We’re here, we’re here.”

“Fuck,” said somebody, and we agreed, piling out into the sunlight. We were pretty high on bacon sandwiches by that time, myself more than most.  I’d won the spoof for the last lethal dose of grease and pork, and forced it down under the coal red gaze of my partners.  The going was getting pretty weird, but we certainly hadn’t turned pro.

“Scrumpy,” announced Greasa, “scrumpy,” and leapt, well, fell into a cab and we followed, a demonic chase across this unknown land.

We arrived at some dark bar up in the hills, glad to be out of the sun and watchful for lawmen.  However, no dice, so we turned out attention to lethal draughts of bitter apple balmy broth to stew out psyches.  We were bad news, and the bartender looked wary, as we checked out the joint, ordered food and came face-to-face with the pirate.

The pirate’s face hung in heavy red folds, raw and windblown, and his unseeing eyes, messed by scrumpy, refused to take us in.

“He’s got a dog,” hissed Greasa.

“I can’t see the dog, I can’t see the dog,” moaned Hawkeye.

“That’s because you’re drunk,” soothed Harvo.

The conversation, you could tell, was hotting up to be a corker, encapsulating the burning issues that beset us, the freewheeling people.  A man came in with “Death Before Employment” tattooed on his arm, and we cracked, howling like dogs, at the truth.

It was at that point that the killer bats appeared.

A   F L Y E R   T O   T H E   B R I D G E   A N D   T H E   G R E A T   D E C E P T I O N

With the arrival of the bats, food in our stomachs (a nasty experience with huge, rock-sized peas, savage green and mushy with it) and itchy feet, we set off for the canyon and the high bridge.

Some bridge.  I was glad we’d kept away from the Wild Turkey on the way down.  A few gulps of the golden brew and we all might have jumped.  As it was, there was some strange behaviour on the trek over there.  Watkins should be doing time for my attempted rape, while Brugman wilfully tortured my damaged psychological balance by withholding my left luggage locker key.  I was going mad and it was a tough assignment to avoid running, slobbering, to a call box when I saw the Samaritan’s phone number on the bridge posts as we walked out over the abyss.

A 2p toll is small payment for a quick suicide, and we stared over the edge, hoping to catch sight of a decaying student or possibly Masius account man in the mud, hundreds of feet below.  But no, only a dirty barge, and rows of traffic like mindless skunk ants, crawling along the riverside freeway.  We threw money and our respect over the side, reduced to spitting into the hot air, trying to placate the gods of the river and our indigestion, suffering the heat in a half mad trance.  We knew the big one was building up.

It was quiet.  Too quiet for us, and with a desire for some uptown, lager-induced excitement, we searched for a cab in the hot wilderness of the hills. After that, I became dazed.   I seem to remember Hawkeye and I staggering in the vanguard, whimpering quietly to ourselves, when we suddenly heard the triumphant cackle of our companions alongside us, taxi-bound for the festival. They were leaving us to fry in the living hell of Clifton, a steaming jungle of Queen Anne terraces and shopping arcades.

We stood, dumbstruck, in wonderment at the depths to which our colleagues had sunk.  Leering from the cab windows, poor, selfish fools, they cruised out of sight.

“Bastards,” said Hawkeye.

D I V I D E D   W E   F A L L

We trudged hot and heavy of foot through the maze of dusty streets in search of a leak and a telephone, throats like a dry gulch; we hadn’t had a drink for twenty minutes.  Things were bad, and the sky was still full of killer bats. I peed in a garage.  Hawkeye gabbled in a phone box and then, like some angel, a streamline b/w taxi (tel: 24001) swept us away from our torture.

We headed for the festival and a chance to rupture the ‘A’ team.

M I N D B L O W N   O R G Y   O N   T H E   W A T E R F R O N T

We waved our passes at the stewards and forced entry to the festival.  The so-called ‘A-Team’ were clustered in the doorway, having failed to push home the advantage and make it any further.  Watkins was hysterical by this stage, handling his Castlemaine like a conductor’s baton and mumbling about his ‘firm’ as entered (by himself) on his pass:  Fox and Gynaecologist – Pub.

It takes all sorts. I looked, in vain, for a valium stand for him.  Greasa was on some gravity trip, talking sense, and it looked as though Harvo was still with us, though it’s hard to tell these things.

We moved in en masse to the body of the show, hellbent on self destruction.  The crowd seemed composed of great red-faced dingbats with huge teeth, swaying on their feet, sickeningly unsteady.  We were all at screaming point, ready to kick and kick hard, besides forcing lashings of foreign lager down, as an antidote to the seething hordes of depraved humanity.

“Free Beck’s,” yelled Brugman.

“Beck’s is innocent.”  I could sense my humour was running dry.

At some point we hit the Mexican beer and the tacos and, after that, it didn’t matter any more.  We were over the great divide, oblivious to the crowd, swaying to the calypso band and tearful.  Maybe the chilli, maybe the Allsopps, who knows.

We even met the client, who appeared like a dull but cuddly wallaby out of the misty horizon.  “Fucking damn cunt, yeah,” said Hawkeye, amiably, and we traded conversation for a while.

But we had gone over the edge, out on a flyer, and survived.  Brains like glorious putty.  We stayed cool.  We hung loose.  We admitted nothing.  We were fucked, basically.

T H E   D E M I S E   O F   T H E   A – T E A M

And then we started coming down.  Hawkeye and I had made friends with the enemy, and clutching 24-packs for the journey, stumbled out with our man to the cab.  Somehow, in the daze, Hawkeye remembered key issues like career moves and ordered another cab. So the A-Team, by now confused and hapless, made the same train.  We all knew we had to flee the curse of Bristol, a lake lager torment way out west.

A rift occured on the early ride, as we retired to our corners to snort bacon sandwiches and muse over St Pauli’s.  We were coming out of it, or so we thought, but the most horrible phase was yet to come.

Suddenly, it hit.

Gresa and Brugman made it to the seats, fighting their way through the bats, to fade. Greasa slept fitfully, dreaming of blasting away at those in power, while Mad Mike crashed out after weeks of sleepless nights and Winstons.

Trouble brewed elsewhere.  “We’re professionals, we’re professionals,” shrieked Watkins, stumbling about on the beer soaked floor.  “The weird turn pro.  Oh my god,” he wailed.

Harvo, Hawkeye, the enemy and I played frisbee with Greasa’s record, while Waz continued suffering from some inner torment, crying, slobbering, walking into doors.  It was a heavy scene.  The barman shut up shop and the public stayed away.

Sometime ’round Chippenham, Watkins lost out on spoof again and mooned out of the window.  “Again, again,” screamed Hawkeye.  “You must show your testicles.”

It was awful.  Once sane men reduced to a rabble of deranged and giant turkeys.  From life in the fast lane to a mind blow out on the hard shoulder.

R E C O N C I L I A T I O N  A N D   S E P A R A T E   W A Y S

Slowly we slid into Paddington and hit the platform like plasticine men.  Friends again, but still out on the wire with alcohol.

Brugman headed for home and slept.

Watkins went to some weird party and remained mute.

Harvo lost himself, and wandered around the Edgeware Road trying to remember who he was.

After some more Swans, Greasa disappeared in South London, never to be seen again.

Hawkeye, scattering chairs and cans, caught a taxi, touched home base and then made that great telephone call to God.

And me? I went off to drink London Pride with some nervous types, to muse how we had set out, that fine summer’s day, to achieve the ultimate, and came home winners…

 

 

Chris office

In memory of Chris ‘Greasa’ Ward who, with Audrey Lewis, gave me my first proper job. With love and thanks. 

One day in August.

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So you get up at 4.20am, although you’ve been awake since 3.30.

The sky is black. There’s a clammy closeness to the morning (even though it’s really night). The cockerels haven’t started up. There are stars out. The lights over the alley-like streets that connect the centre of the village continue to blaze.

You make tea. You listen to the various phone alarms going off around the house. A few bottles of Moretti into the cooler box and a couple more of prosecco and it’s out into the square, with hats and sun cream.

Ivo and Monica hove into view in the noisy Ford estate. Clare and Joss pile in. You follow in the second car, along with Alice, Lottie and Michael. The Ford is belching fumes. Turning into Via Meassa, a sinuous, green gloom of a country road that everyone uses as a commuter cut-through, it becomes evident Ivo is not happy. He stops, backs up, does a U-turn and heads back home, barking through his open window, “Non funziona”,  instructing you to meet him at the far end of the road, when he has transferred all the gear from the Ford to his Citroen Berlingo. As he grinds away to change vehicles, a dirty candyfloss of diesel smoke hangs in the air.

You wait on the fast moving main road at the other end of Meassa. Michael stays awake and alert. Lottie and Alice sleep in the backseat. The Berlingo sweeps past and you set off in pursuit. It will be a journey down from the mountains of an hour-and-a-half. Your Volkswagen estate – the Beast of Wolfsburg  – guns along in the dark, its UK oriented headlights sweeping across the oncoming traffic. You hope the approaching drivers are not being too blinded. You keep your distance from Ivo. He doesn’t bother with indication. Roundabouts become gambles at a roulette wheel as you lurch after him.

After the tunnels and galleries of the autostrada and the inky black blocks of high mountains above, you sweep down to the flat lands. The road curls around in a elegant loop through hectare after hectare of prosecco vineyards. You speed through ribbon villages and towns on the Conegliano road. Dawn licks the dark sky. Villas, apartment blocks and nameless industrial buildings jostle with each other for roadside space amongst vines and farmland. Avenues of pine trees stretch away into the lightening gloom.  The magical soup of morning light is ladled fully across the horizon.  You drive into the canal zone between Pordenone and Caorle, an in-between waterworld of reeds and canals, fruit farms and the abandoned dreams of families that cobweb ruined, lonely buildings.

You touch upon the outskirts of Caorle itself, a comfortable resort whose skirts dip into the northern Adriatic. You’ve been here a few times, to rent your umbrella and sunbeds  for a day amongst hundreds of others. There parades a beguiling democracy: flab mixed with fit, tattoos flaunted alongside clear skins, lustrous hair tresses paired with bald, elderly heads.  Eastern European tourists tuck in with dynasties of Northern Italians, the latter devouring their Corriere newspapers.  Caorle is a place of late 20th Century Hotels – the Majestic, the Splendid, a hundred others – whose promising addresses, run with eccentric family pride, line streets that team with bicycles and beachwear shops. This is a resort that encourages all-comers to do their thing but fit in with everyone else while they’re doing it.

You dive off as you approach the back of the town’s outskirts and head west. A sharp turn leads to a shopping arcade that must have looked temporary thirty years ago. An air of abandoned theme park prevails. You stop and get out to join the others who have gathered, forgetting to put on the hand brake until called out by Michael, the dependable, your son’s most frequently visiting friend. With no harm done, you join the group with whom you will spend the day – there are twelve people in total – to gulp an espresso while Ivo speeds to a bakery for rolls and brioches.

Moments later, you follow Ivo once more, via a thinning road past bungalows that remind you of Shoreham or Bexhill, to a scrubland parking place and the dockside. It is not yet 7am. It is 24 degrees centigrade. There isn’t a cloud in the sky.

Your vessel is a rusting baked alaska of a boat, two crumbling levels squashed on top of each other. Your nostrils twitch to a faint but persistent reek, not unpleasant, the very essence of fermented sea life.  Introduced to your 80 year-old captain, he eyes you with measured scrutiny. Bobbing a snow white head, he asks, “Are you Scottish?” of your wife, when she dishes out Ivo’s homemade salami into the bread rolls. “No. Why?” she replies. To which, he opens his roll to reveal just two meagre slices. Clare pops another couple in for him. He smiles and pads off back up to his wheelhouse.

IMG_0254  IMG_0215

As you set off, through millpond water in the canal mouth before the sea, there is a pause amongst the group and then preparation starts in earnest.  Comparative, competitive fishing chat in dialect grows from a murmur among the Cirvoiese, as they unleash rods, lines, hooks and carry cases.  You step around toolboxes,  overflowing with weights, grotesque lures and nameless grommets.   Bait is fetched from the forward deck, where polystyrene boxes of sardines and squid defrost into black soup.  Tiny sardines have their tails tied in fishnet loops while squid are deftly cut into strips. The boat’s engines open up and your occasional glances over the creamed-surf sternwave are met with a diminishing view of Caorle.  The army of umbrellas and sunbeds defend the empty beaches. Invasion will come later.

IMG_0224      Ivo sets line

Ivo expends extraordinary, ever-giving energy as he lines and hooks rods for all six of your party.   As the boat steams 12 nautical miles straight out to sea on the light swell, he places the rods on the rests around the deck with care and speed.  With sixteen or eighteen rods pointing off the boat, your craft bristles like a gunship.  You marvel at the staccato bursts of machine gun fire of Ivo’s speech patterns as he harangs you with indefatigable positivity.  It is going to be, he convinces you, a good day.

At a nod from the captain to his single crew member, you lurch to a stop and hear the clank as the anchor chain plays out.  There is a moment’s drift.  The engine surges and goes silent.  The rope attached to the chain checks you against the current.  It is only forty feet to the bottom.  In one direction, lost in the haze, is the shuffle and clamour of Venice. On the opposite horizon, a smudge indicates the mystery of Trieste.

You are gifted a spot amidships on the shady side of the boat and told to get on with it.  Juggling your allotted rod and a beer thrust into your hand, you cast for a few minutes. A brief cry of triumph goes up.  In the stern, Renato, a neatly moustached man in a multi-pocketed fishing waistcoat, hauls in a mackerel of perhaps a pound-and-a-half. He continues to do this about every five minutes for the rest of the day with metronomic regularity. He appears to have exchanged a fishing hook for a magnet.

Not much is happening around your line.  The sardine tail in its coil stays intact and unvisited.  Small shards of collapsing sardine from a string bag dangling off the bow swirl past in the current to entice passing shoals to join your party.  After Renato’s first catch, the Cirvoiese start landing fish after fish as if in a fairground.  The cooler boxes around your feet thud percussively with reverberating mackerel and pollock as the numbers pile up.  Paolo, the geometra attending two rods between you and Renato, maintains the smug air of an Italian Alan Bennett as he spools his many successes onto the deck at your feet.

There is a sharp cough from behind. It is the octogenarian captain.  Without asking, he takes your rod from you, reels in and looks at the bait with disgust.  Throwing it contemptuously into the water, he threads a postage stamp of squid.  Casting, he looks into the water for about 15 seconds then hands the rod back without ceremony.  There is a fish on the line. With a mixture of shame and satisfaction, you hoik a decent sized mackerel out of the sea. By the time you turn to thank the man, he has already disappeared back into his wheelhouse.  Conflicted, you feel infantilised and full of gratitude.  But while he may  have helped you catch the fish, you have caught the bug.

IMG_0241  hangers on

For about two hours, with the occasional break for a redistribution of beers, rolls or a chat, you fish.  Your mind drifts to the glorious neutrality of the here and now. Although the current is evident, the sea calms to near glass. Two or three boats sneak up and anchor in your patch, feeding off both your captain’s instinctive knowledge of where to find fish and also the sack of fragmenting bait, spreading around you. A couple on a smart, white sports cruiser start fishing 100 yards away, both wearing the smallest triangles of cloth imaginable. She has three and he just one.  A wavering breeze dispels the thickening heat but gives every indication of commitment issues.

Lunch is announced shortly before midday. The taciturn crew member dishes out penne putanesca in small plastic bowls.  Tomato-rich, anchovy-seasoned and olive-festooned, there is a satisfying, salty ‘gnyaah’ to the food (as Fergus Henderson might say), helped with liberal gratings from the parmesan block. Tumblers of icy prosecco are thrown back.  You fall on deep fried, crispy squid, prawns and fish as a follow-on, before Paolo hands you a slice of raspberry jam torte. It is the rewardingly dense handiwork of his wife (who has stayed at home).  Concluding, the crew member encourages you to correct your espresso with viscous sambuca.

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The girls in your party retire to the upper deck and sunbathe.  The boys continue fishing beside the Italians. An encroaching stillness becalms your early afternoon. After your morning’s catch – a desultory three or four small prizes – activity in your patch of water ceases. The ground bait sack is empty.  Renato continues, somehow, to pluck mackerel from the sea, but others’ luck dwindles. Once or twice, a flurry of interest is raised when small fry break the surface,  scattered meteor showers of tiny fish escaping something bigger, but whatever is in pursuit gives your hook a wide berth.

Heavy with heat and lunch, torpor trips your concentration. You sit, your back to the engine housing, your legs outstretched on the wooden bench. Sleep is instant. You probably snore but then so does Joss beside you and your neighbours cradling their heads on their arms at the table.  Unconscious for a few, stupefying minutes, you wake to a scene drained of colour.  Stumbling on the metal ladder to the upper deck while your eyes adjust, you join Clare and Monica who are both sunning and chatting, keeping a benign watch over you all.

Returning to your post, you try a little casting, but your heart isn’t in it and neither, apparently, are the fishes’. Before long, the captain signals time to draw stumps and you steam away from your pitch, looking back at the little boats on its boundary, still fielding with hopes of a catch heading their way.  The Cirvoiese begin the serious business of beheading, filleting, cleaning and (although not for the mackerel) scaling the fish. Ivo deals with over sixty, our combined haul,  before throwing the bits off the stern.  From nowhere, a shower of predatory, rasping gulls screech down to fight over every morsel. The beady-eyed winners take all, swooping away from their shrieking competitors.

In the last few minutes of your return to shore, a languid state of grace descends upon the dozen of you.  You sit with the Italians in companionable silence, each staring at your own, particular horizon.  The spell is broken as you tie up with a flurry of deck clearance and the carting of the gear to the cars. You are forced to step back from the ovens they have become as you open the doors. You say a sincere farewell to the captain and, with air conditioning up to the max, you follow the others to a bar in a town just off a roundabout, close to the motorway home.  Goldfish bowls of iced beer are served to you all by a smiling Chinese bar owner.  You fight to pay for the drinks but fail spectacularly, so slide in a second round, shortly after.

As you drive on home, every passenger sleeps.  Tomorrow, you will cook the fish fillets  over the barbecue in silver paper, with lemon, rosemary, white wine and garlic before driving back down to Venice airport with Michael and Lottie.  If you allow it, the sense of an ending will flood in to the evening, with the prospect of the drive back to England a day or two away. You have been here a month.  Beyond the Dolomites, the Val D’Aosta, the Mont Blanc tunnel and Dijon lie your new job, Alice’s new university place and the wettest October on record.

The party mood brushes those thoughts away, banishing them completely.  Instead, you totter in to your little courtyard, your sunburned skin too tight for your face. Dusk is an hour or two ahead.  At the table under the vine and the heavy black bunches of Clinton grapes, scented from the sun to an atmosphere of intoxifying strawberry bubblegum, you sit with a glass of prosecco that you bottled at Easter and contemplate the day you have had.

You’ve been fishing.  You are home. 

Awdry family    Family

A head start.

LONDON-TUBE-RUSH

Across the sea of arms and heads

A gold helmet breaks the horizon,

Grotesque, beautiful.

Reflected in the dome are angled eels of hands

Around the wearer.

A diver, perhaps,

Swimming the straits of a carriage

Pulsing with commuter anemones.

The incongruity dreamlike.

Jacques Cousteau static in a shoal

Of morning worker fish.

Or an astronaut, transfixed by a

First step onto a populous planet.

The contours catch the lights of

Marble Arch.  The head turns.

A bespectacled cyclist of

Some years and creased brow.

Dive.  Dive.  Dive.

We’re off to Bond Street.