One of the more graphic clichés is the expression, ‘hard rails’. There was a point, around the turn of the century, where the marketing people I met used it endlessly. At this time of particularly hard rails, when the oppressive dictats of a pandemic have been replaced by the oppressive panorama of a dictator, tufts of moss between steely miseries are a joy. A primrose growing by the iron road is an act of defiance. Every flower is welcome.
Nostalgic for amusements, I find myself opening wardrobes of memory at odd times of day. The name of a long-forgotten school companion is recalled when brushing my teeth. That house with bumpy chimneys, where we turned right on the way to school, is photographically magicked out of nowhere. Tiny but vivid tastes or scents, whispers in the uncertain April air, catapult me backwards with rapier velocity. I am jolted to guinea pig straw; boiling flannels; the intense, tomatoey reek of a greenhouse in August.
These curiosities linger. Schulz’s wobbly-line smile hovers, with that Charlie Brown crumple, on my face in recognition. Small madnesses, strange behaviours and engaging oddities have never been so welcome.
Our first ever family dog was a golden labrador. A pale, top-of-the-milk cream, my parents christened her Brie. “Because she runs everywhere and smells awful,” suggested our Uncle Phillip. (Brie later gave birth to a litter of ten puppies we named after cheeses. Beaufort, Dunlop, Stilton and Charolais – the only girl of the ten – are the names I can remember.) Our encounters with animals had begun with a succession of cats and my brother’s mouse, Plimsoll. The poor thing was eaten by the same uncle’s dachshund at the end of my father’s long journey to Battersea. He took Plimsoll there for safekeeping before our family holiday, in an absurdly cumbersome, homemade wooden hutch of many compartments that could have housed the dachshund, let alone the mouse. Besides our own pets, visiting animals to Little Downham added to the tapestry. An extremely distant cousin – my father was a dab hand at unearthing bloodlines to remote Awdry relations – would come and lunch with us occasionally, bringing her parrot. It was a free range creature as, in many ways, was she. Sarah, scion of the architectural and artistic Lutyens tribe, must have been fascinating, but we children only had eyes for the bird. One Sunday, it stomped about our dining room table, peering at us as we attempted to ferry food from plate to mouth. The poor thing developed Alopecia and, on another visit, was all pinkly white skin and bone, the odd, bedraggled feather hanging out of its bottom. Sarah took it to an animal psychiatrist somewhere in London. While waiting for her consultation, the man sat next to her had a large, wicker basket on his knees. It quivered spasmodically. Intrigued, she explained she had a chronically defoliated parrot which she believed was suffering mental health issues. Gesturing at his basket, he said, “Psychologically disturbed python.” Living in a damp basement flat, the snake was struggling to slough its skin in the usual way, and was upset by the – presumably soggy – folds blocking its vision. We imagined the python on a couch, under the beady-eyed tutelage of the psychiatrist, with a hair dryer in one hand and a large invoice in the other.
My older sister had a fabulous school friend called Sally Steele. Full of energy and fun, we devoured her stories with enthralled fascination. Her parents had retired to the South Coast, but her father had no time for the easy life. On cliff top walks, he determined to walk closer and closer to the edge to keep things interesting. When the thrill of being millimetres from the precipice dulled a little, he took to walking backwards, sometimes adding an extra frisson by closing his eyes. As far as we knew, he never stumbled.
His proximity to the Great Beyond prompts a segue to the tea parties we attended with the three, very elderly, surviving daughters of William Bramwell Booth, the founder of the Salvation Army. Our ailing grandmother had nearly lodged at their vast house in Finchampstead, but decided against it, convinced they would curtail her enthusiasm for drink. The eldest, Miss Catherine, later became famous as a Michael Parkinson TV chat show guest on two or three occasions. She was consumed with the idea of flying saucers and space travel. Miss Olive was (at the age of 90) still the driver, and would scan the motoring press with a caustic eye. Our particular friend was Miss Dora, the baby of the family at 86, who loved badgers. She would sit up all night in the woods, wrapped in a blanket, watching them go about their set-digging and nocturnal antics. At the conclusion of tea in the croquet lawn-sized ‘drawing room, where each of the three sisters would be entertaining guests, we would be invited to kneel on the parquet floor as Miss Catherine riffed through improvised – and extremely long – prayers. We would all slide to the ground, except for Miss De Winter who, at 101 years, was “closer to heaven than the rest of us” and allowed to remain in her chair. I would open my eyes every now and then to peer at her through fusillades of random, percussive Amens from the assembled. Such afternoons were bubbles of tightly wrapped life from the 1890s, light years away from late Sixties England with (unknown to me at the time) all its liberated abandon.
From the same era, our childhood was blessed with the redoubtable Great Aunt Bee. Resolutely single, capable and direct, she had spent a life nursing children with unsentimental vigour. In school holidays, our mother would pack us into the old green Morris and we’d bomb down to Shoreham to visit. Aunt Bee’s bungalow was one of hundreds that paraded the roads a little way back from the seafront, its brownish, pebble-dashed uniform an echo of the regiments of surrounding houses. A woman of delightfully trenchant views, she was convinced that if you drank alcohol quickly enough, it would have no effect. When she came to see us, my father would pass her one of the generous Portuguese glasses, with bright red and blue dancing figures twirling around its perimeter and, before he’d retreated two steps, she would drain the nutty amontillado in a gulp. Her Shoreham bungalow had two doors, side-by-side, the ‘front’ door leading to the hallway and the other directly to the kitchen. When the local butcher pressed the front door bell and she opened it, there was a pause. She held up her finger soundlessly, shut the door and walked round to the kitchen – past my visiting parents – to receive him at the tradesman’s entrance. It was for her that a granny flat was built onto the back of Little Downham, a comfortable and independent annex that took the place of the old greenhouse. In her early nineties, Aunt Bee moved in after sternly advising my parents not to fuss over her. She wished to remain as independent as possible. She died two weeks later, a shock as we’d assumed she was eternal. The morning my father tentatively checked the silent flat, my mother discovered her perfectly prepared, suet-hatted steak and kidney pudding in the small oven, ready to cook from the night before. From thereon, the granny flat meant we became a prime target for aging relations, eyeing us up as a last stop-off possibility on the railway into the night.
I spent six weeks on Koh Samui in 1979, when the island sported one policeman, no hotels and not a single, metalled road. The airport hadn’t been dreamt of. Visiting Westerners were largely a rabble of gentle, late-stage hippies or traumatised Vietnam vets, who’d failed to rejoin American life after their draft tours. Amongst them, I made friends with an Englishman called Lawrence. In his late twenties, he clutched a yellowing, crumpled copy of the Daily Telegraph from months before. Each morning, over breakfast under the palm thatch, peering out at the South China Sea, he would carefully complete the crossword in pencil, in a delicate but clear hand. When completed, he would survey his handiwork, take a sip of coffee from the chunky Duralex glass, and then rub it all out again ready for the next day.
For exceptional curiosities, my father gave me a brilliant book, compiled by the wonderful John Timpson, in 1992. English Eccentrics (Jarrold Publishing, 1991) is a loving compendium of extremely odd people. Timpson was the honey-voiced, mellifluous anchor of the Today programme, a warmly amused, perceptive and penetrating interviewer. His observations about Sir George Sitwell remain exquisite. Father to the remarkable trio of Osbert, Edith and Sacheverell, Sir George took eccentricity to another level. Entering his manor house at Eckington in Derbyshire, visitors were met with a sign that telegraphed something of his character: I must ask anyone entering the house never to contradict me in any way, as it interferes with the functioning of my gastric juices and prevents my sleeping at night. He instructed his children that ‘It is dangerous for you to lose touch with me for a single day. You never know when you may need the benefit of my experience‘. When Osbert was posted to the trenches in France in 1914, Sir George wrote a helpfully encouraging letter to the older son: ‘Though you will not of course encounter anywhere abroad the same weight of gunfire we had to face here‘ – he was writing from Scarborough – ‘yet my experience may be useful to you. Directly you hear the first shell, retire as I did to the Undercroft, and remain there quietly until all firing has ceased… Keep warm and have plenty of nourishing food at frequent but regular intervals, and of course plenty of rest. I find a nap in the afternoon most helpful; I advise you to try it whenever possible.‘
It’s unlikely that anyone in Ukraine has received that kind of advice. There are hard rails that remain stubbornly unyielding.
I was lured to Ogilvy, London. In name, the agency had become a truncated version of ‘Ogilvy and Mather’. In practice, it had billowed to a sprawling octopus of mini (or mini-ish) agencies. Around nine hundred people, loosely arranged in different ‘business units’, were housed in the top two floors of a building in Canary Wharf. The bait was to be global creative director on Unilever’s Dove soap brand. I swallowed it.
For years, the moisture-rich soap had banged on to its audience about soft skin and youthful glow. In the previous half century of advertising, the best known – and most quoted – commercial had featured Jean Shy. Her charming, simple testimonial had been more or less pasted and copied as a template, in repeated echoes, over and over again through the generations.
Canary Wharf took some getting used to. It was the other side of London from where I lived, an hour’s commute from its Truman Show-like setting. Fritz Lang would have recognised the place. Friends described it as ‘an industrial estate for bankers’. A Walt Disney miniaturised version of Chicago, the ‘Wharf was no Fantasia, but on my first morning, I came up from the tube to discover a man on his hands and knees, scrubbing chewing gum from the pavement. This is a long way from Oxford Street, I thought.
In 2006, Dove products were sold in 154 countries. The annual global sales were around $2.2 billion. Stacked up together, those packets and tubes of Dove soap, moisturising cream, deodorant, shampoo and conditioner would have filled seven full size Dutch barns.
In tandem with the advertising, 600,000 young women across the world were being contacted about positive self-awareness and offered (rather simple) courses to bolster their self-esteem. A fraction had grabbed the opportunity, but it still ran to thousands. The campaign was growing.
Three remarkable people had set the CampaignForRealBeauty.com in train. An equally remarkable client, Silvia Lagnado, had ‘bought’ the idea, which was then midwifed into existence by her second-in-command, Klaus Arntz. Klaus’ immense contribution was one of those ‘without whom…’ performances, late stage and critical to the four press advertisements that kicked the whole thing off. He was the client I came to know best and respect the most.
The idea was born of Olivia Johnson’s planning and Dennis Lewis’ creative directorship. Both had worked at BBH. Daryl Fielding’s vice-like grip on the hugely complicated moving parts of the business held everything steady as the work gathered momentum. Steve Hooper (also ex-BBH and a copywriter) sat with Dennis as they set about breaking through the saccharine hegemony of ‘the beauty category’: In truth, a series of codes and conventions better described as a tyranny.
But for an accident, the campaign would never have appeared.
The story has been a little mythologised, but it is true. The first photographer Dennis commissioned, the exceptional Ellen Von Unwerth, didn’t capture the ‘realness’ of the women in her shots. Although beautiful, they looked stylised and inauthentic, portraying glamorous icons of inaccessibility. Dennis asked Klaus if they could reject the images and start again. Bravely – and exceptionally – Klaus agreed, without seeking higher sanctions to write off the cost. Rankin was then contracted to cast and shoot a number of real women again (throughout, certainly to the end of my tenure, we never used a professional model, ever). His resulting photographs appeared in the first work, known as the ‘Firming Campaign’. The press ad topping this piece was one of the four. The aesthetic set a visual tone. Without having to read a word or see the logo, Dove print advertising became instantly recognisable. Rankin’s imagery gave the advertising the authenticity the approach demanded. That ‘look’ continues.
Just as the print-ready ads were being readied to go to press for publication, a late panic spread among the upper echelons of Unilever. The decree went out to ditch the work. On no account should it appear. It was dangerous, and could seriously undermine the considerable sales of the brand, associating Dove forever with an ill-judged stunt that had gone horribly wrong. Anxiety spread.
Completely by mistake, one set of ads made it it through the wire and into a German publication before they could be stopped. The magazine printed early. The first versions ever of ‘campaign for real beauty’ went out into the world. As harried Dove marketing people were instructed to chase around and stop everything, copies began to be sold from German news vendors.
Comments from readers arrived almost immediately. Journalists were alerted. Here was something different and very weird. A ripple became a storm.
The overwhelming response, from the very first email and Facebook comments (so much more innocent then) was positive. Super positive. Overwhelmingly, emphatically, unequivocally in favour. A vast, mass market brand had brought an entirely new perspective down from the mountain and, to a section of the audience, it was an oxygenating blast of fresh air. Applause, congratulation and delight filled the airwaves. The different way of communicating was howlingly welcome. At bloody last, approximated the reaction.
Within Unilever, those frantic attempts to bury the advertising were themselves buried in minutes. Instead, the Executive tribe turned on a sixpence and began to purr with the praise. Silvia and Klaus were justly congratulated. Interview requests and opinion piece offers poured in. For a while, there was a distinct sense that something had really changed. Dove had boldly rewritten the rules.
Actual sales gains were modest to non-existent for a while, but the soaps and moisturising business picked up in the following two years. Deodorants and Haircare were added in to the advertising topics. The advertising approach was stitched into campaign after campaign and rolled out across the world.
Which is when I arrived.
On my watch, some amazing things happened, but few, if any, were down to me. I found myself on the bridge of a very tall ship, peering down at the distant decks of North America, South America, Europe, South Africa, the Middle East and substantial chunks of the Asia Pacific region from Singapore to Japan. In theory, the creative brains of Ogilvy & Mather people in any of those territories were available to me – for a price – to work on whichever initiative I decreed. I took day-return flights to Europe about once a fortnight. I flew to New York, Los Angeles and Tokyo to talk soap with local agency and Unilever people. (I was turned away from the gate in Japan’s Narita airport en route to Delhi for want of a proper Visa.) The coterie of high-flyers – agency people and global clients together – that I had joined made for a fascinating, if complicated, tribe. I came to know them better as our travelling circus punched holes in the ozone layer. In the Zoom and Teams age, our flights strike now as wanton excess. Back then, it always felt better to look someone in the eye in person.
At Unilever, Silvia Lagnado had moved on prior to my arrival. In her place, a fiersome, determined Argentinian was managing Dove’s affairs, under pressure to deliver a major sales uplift. A coiled spring of a leader, Fernando kept his claws sheathed towards me for the duration of my tenure. So huge were the sub-categories of ‘Hair’ and ‘Deodorant’, there were global leads for each under him, with the added complexity of territorial barons and baronesses in various ‘key markets’. By comparison, a number of small European states are run far less impressively – or politically.
There were wonderful people who helped me and contributed to Dove’s growing fame. Maureen Shirreff at Ogilvy, Chicago and Joerg Herzog in Dusseldorf were particular pillars of support. (By rechristening a product range as ‘Pro-Age’ rather than ‘Anti-Aging’, Maureen took a hugely successful swipe at another of the clichés in skincare retailing.) In London, Dennis continued to contribute, along with others in the creative department. I was massively helped by Sue Higgs and Andy Bird, both still leading creators of powerful advertising, at the top of their game in their respective agencies.
Perhaps the stand-out work in my two-and-a-half years came from Canada. At Ogilvy Toronto, the fabulous Janet Kestin created enough headroom, trust and momentum for Tim Piper to write a short film, in which his then girlfriend appeared, made at very low cost. His art director was Mike Kirkland and it was directed by Yael Staav. The end product was that retouching film, which I think was the first ever Double Grand Prix winner (film and cyber) at the Cannes advertising festival. Disarmingly simple, the message couldn’t be clearer.
With something as colossal as Dove, there were bound to be challenges, and some were insurmountable. I learned so much by listening to the views of thousands of women across the world. Unilever’s financial ambitions were sometimes at odds with feminine psychology. Whereas the idea – and the portrayal – of ‘real’ worked well for cleansing and soap products, it frequently hit a brick wall for haircare. Time and again, we heard groups declaring that, while they celebrated the best of their true selves with skin products like soap and moisturiser, when it came to hair they simply wanted ‘the Dream’, with a capital ‘D’. The notion of ‘real’ battled with a desire for movie star looks and lost. Sales figures told us that Hollywood hopes won out over ordinary, everyday reality, even as our competitors’ promises proved false with every trip to the shower. As a consequence, Ogilvy people spent a ridiculous amount of time with some very patient women, filming endless hair washing, styling and flicking shots in very slow motion. Bizarrely, Bangkok became my sort of go-to hair hub, supplying copious close-up footage of immaculately presented tresses, a swaying, swirly forest of gently waving follicles, all certified to have been cleaned and conditioned with Dove.
There were also certain countries where the idea of ‘real beauty’ simply didn’t work at all. In the UK and the US, the variation in women’s body types is quite broad (the bell curve range of short, tall, broad, thin etc). The spectrum of so many shapes and sizes was summarised to me in one research finding as “a 45% variance”. In South Korea, the figure was 7%. There is far greater physical similarity and – a contentious topic – a huge cultural pressure to conform. Back in 2007, if you showed a group of women in Seoul photographs of someone different to the widely accepted ‘ideal’, the unanimous response was always, “Well, hasn’t she let herself go“. The last statistic I saw was that something like one in four women in Korea has had plastic surgery of some kind.
There were highs and there were lows. I was lucky to have the responsibility and it was a privilege to direct Dove’s advertising work. There were moments that I felt – and continue to feel to this day – that it could, and probably should, have all been run by a woman. (In 2007, 35% of Dove’s UK sales were to men – which later prompted the launch of a dedicated men’s range.) A much greater gender balance has been achieved across Unilever’s marketing since, largely down to Leena Nair, the brilliant HR lead who now occupies the top job at Chanel. Ultimately, as with any corporate posting, I was moved on (not ungraciously) to take up other duties at the newly reinstated Ogilvy and Mather, as it should have remained throughout.
In the years since, there have been amazing, world class contributions to the campaign. Sales have grown. Other brands have aped Dove’s approach, so the mainstream advertising seems less fresh and distinctive. Less successfully, the ill-fated 2017 launch of a packaging range blew a lot of good will away with patronising, dumb stupidity. The bottles were made to – so say – mimic women’s body shapes: as crass a piece of marketing thinking as it was possible to imagine. Social media loaded up its shotguns and sent volleys of ridicule and scorn towards the brand. From a long way off, I thought the protests utterly justified.
Heading back to the beginning, Olivia, Dennis and Daryl really started something. It might not have been a cure for cancer, but they brought a much needed blast of honesty to an advertising sector built on false hopes, paranoia and – often – bullying. In a quiet but revolutionary way, how women and the female form are approached in advertising was put under the spotlight. A refreshing seachange was definitely detectable. It might not have been seismic in the grand scheme, nor that long-lasting (although echoes continue), but I was deeply proud to be part of Dove during my stint. And honestly, the overwhelming majority of people I both met and worked with were exceptional, doing their best for a brand that was bravely trying to change the rules.
At the back end of November in 1992, I invited a group of people to a London pub and then supper. It was a simple and immensely enjoyable evening. Nothing particularly out of the ordinary happened. I was treated to several speeches and some slightly humiliating photographs. We met around 7pm on 5th December and the whole thing was over by about eleven.
By the standards that have evolved and developed since, it was tame to the point of lame. We drank a lot, ate well and laughed. People went home. I can still remember much about it. Looking back, I wouldn’t have had it any other way.
These were my people. I sent an introductory sheet before we all met up. We are still talking to each other, albeit with gaps sometimes lasting years between sentences. Each of the twelve has gone on to be hugely successful and live full, remarkable lives. I was, and still am, lucky to know them.
Here, with slightly more recent thumbnail photos, is how I described them nearly thirty years ago. Given their illustrious careers since, my attempts weren’t entirely prescient.
Will Awdry. Respectable young chap, easily embarrassed. Would prefer to talk about wholesome subjects like motorway driving or folk dancing. Especially next Saturday.
Jim Davies. Curator of the schooldays archive of anecdotes. Easy to spot thanks to aerodynamic haircut. Tall, quiet journalist and playwright (Directed groom as a rhinoceros in house play. Scenery fell apart during performance.) Fellow prefect with groom, entered into dubious poetic exchange in closing months of joint school careers. Both peed in the hole in which Princess Anne was to plant tree. Tree miraculously still alive. Half Dutch, linguistic gymnast of the printed word, still calls groom ‘Boz’. It’s a long story.
Kevin Duncan. Wiry, freckled entrepreneur, footballer, father and rock guitarist (influences: Lead, Mercury, Titanium). Fellow traveller in Geography at Oxford with groom, more importantly songwriter, organiser and leading light in succession of bands: The Inrage, Straight No Chaser, Lines To London, numerous recordings all sadly available. Extremely organized, works for large advertising agency, has thankfully laid to rest distressing collection of T shirts.
Peter Field. Avuncular gastronome with splendid nose for fine wine, cream tea or simply admiring. Has walked every inch of Great British map, eaten everything you can think of, probably including missionary. Satiric style may be late 20th Century answer to Enid Blyton. Driving style as featured in ‘The Italian Job’. Brilliant gardener, cook, fills in any extra time as advertising planner in a big building with a red staircase.
Martin Galton. Has spent more time with the groom than anyone else on earth (8 hours a day for the last 7 years). May explain tendency to loll about going ‘Ha Ha Ha’. Bearded, owns many bright jumpers. Top artist, single-handedly closed down Tunbridge Wells art gallery with one exhibition. (The critics: ‘Too controversial.’ ‘Crap.’) An art director with a bacchanalian taste for colour, will go to any lengths to seek out lunch. Draws nude people on Tuesdays.
John Hunt. Groom met John in Uxbridge in 1983, driving bizarrely mustard-coloured TR7. About six differently-hued motors (currently a red Porsche) later, now advises groom on matters financial – mortgage, parking tickets, Ladbrokes – which explains why there’s never enough to write rest of you a cheque. Musical fanatic, ex-manager of various bands, one-time body-builder. Deeply secretive about relationships with opposite sex. Perhaps he needs to be.
Jeremy Legge. Geography tutorial partner of groom at Brasenose, Oxford (both wore ties). Militarily correct bearing conceals seething ferment of literary genius – used to write poems and listen to Gordon Lightfoot (American answer to Wally Whiton). Able sportsman – cricket/rugby – proud dad of two, now our man in Cabinet Office. Like the Foreign Office, except advises opposite of everything the FO suggests. Fascinating on subject of tilt-flow rain gauges, South Africa (advised ANC for 2 years), nasturtiums.
Bill Locke. Went out with groom’s cousin aged 16 and never came back. Price on head still stands. Ran teenage band ‘Volta Redunda’, before graduating downwards to ‘Lines to London’ or whatever it was called. Bit of a thesp, jolly jape history of distinguished reviews as Cambridge student. After crisis of conscience in law (3 years at the photocopy machine), took off for BBC. Now produces/directs Blue Peter. No milk bottle top jokes please. Recently married; beforehand possessed several cookery books in which every dish stated; ‘Serves 2’.
Adam Morgan. Tall, blue-eyed, some would say döppelganger for groom (who are they kidding?), recently married gentleman, desperately regretful of agreeing to be Best Man. Prediliction for bottom jokes, pudding wine, Michelle Pfeiffer in waders. Prospective novel doing rounds of agents after six month sabbatical writing it. Has returned to be overworked planning (now there’s a conversation topic) director of hugely, er, big London advertising agency. Met groom in doorways in Oxford, pondered future together. Kind, generous and lovely and making a speech on 12th December.
Matthew Orr. The boy next door, knows all sorts of embarrassing early Awdry life details. Would dress up together (yes, really), play in sandpit, collect huge amounts of frog’s spawn. Spent early teenagerhood with groom sneaking unwittingly into only gay pub in High Wycombe. Ask about the gladiator story. Powerful rower, now owns private stockbrokers, married, lives in several squares of the A-Z, most of them in Chelsea. For some reason, has always been a wow with girls, particularly French Au Pairs. Bastard. We got the one with glasses, acne and a crush on my older brother.
Tim Riley. An handsome, athletic cove, good runner, racy copywriting style. Avid tea drinker. Buys every dance record from latest techno creatures (reverse baseball caps, silly trousers) before it’s released. Has driven extraordinary number of motorcars. Fixed up groom with blind date once, but labrador widdled everywhere. Lives in small cathedral in West London. Dry sense of humour verges on the Saharan at full stretch. Watch for immaculately ironed shirt. Holiday’d with three travel irons this year. Doesn’t everyone?
Phil Streather. Dubious honour of being groom’s next-door-neighbour and hence first in line for cat-feeding duties. Laid groom’s garden (there’s sexual achievement for you). Top documentary director, most recent film about, um, kites, and sound recordist – about 15 weeks sticking mikes up strange animals in London Zoo last year. Has just returned from Nepalese honeymoon. Actually gets married next January. Is strict veggie, enthusiastic mountaineer, Bonnington lookalike, cook. Referred to as one of ‘The Weirds’ by all at 61 Oakmead Road, stands about in stone circles at Solstice, festivals at Glastonbury, pubs anywhere.
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.
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.
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.
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.