“Do you mind going to Balham?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Go away.  Or I’ll have you killed.”

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

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

Where to, Guv?

A drop.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Watson and Cozens.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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: ]

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.


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.


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.


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

David Ogilvy

David Ogilvy in Touffou.

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

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

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

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

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


Hugh Baillie and Jon Steel in mafia pose, Touffou.

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


Herta and a WPP Fellows tour.

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


Rory 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.


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.


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.


                                                         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.


                                                                                                           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






Kooky Producer






Tooloose Le Topman




Martin 60th birthday 2

Captain Martin


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.