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.

Fear and Loathing in Bristol. 8.06.1984

s-l300-1  s-l300   download

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

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

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

  Chris      Mike       Pete       Andrew       Mark               

S M A L L    B E G I N N I N G S

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A   T R I P   O N   S C R U M P Y

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

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

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

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

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

“He’s got a dog,” hissed Greasa.

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

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

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

It was at that point that the killer bats appeared.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Bastards,” said Hawkeye.

D I V I D E D   W E   F A L L

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Free Beck’s,” yelled Brugman.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Suddenly, it hit.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brugman headed for home and slept.

Watkins went to some weird party and remained mute.

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

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

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

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



Chris office

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

One day in August.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IMG_0254  IMG_0215

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

IMG_0224      Ivo sets line

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

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

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

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

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

IMG_0241  hangers on

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

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

IMG_0239  IMG_0249

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

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

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

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

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

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

You’ve been fishing.  You are home. 

Awdry family    Family

A head start.


Across the sea of arms and heads

A gold helmet breaks the horizon,

Grotesque, beautiful.

Reflected in the dome are angled eels of hands

Around the wearer.

A diver, perhaps,

Swimming the straits of a carriage

Pulsing with commuter anemones.

The incongruity dreamlike.

Jacques Cousteau static in a shoal

Of morning worker fish.

Or an astronaut, transfixed by a

First step onto a populous planet.

The contours catch the lights of

Marble Arch.  The head turns.

A bespectacled cyclist of

Some years and creased brow.

Dive.  Dive.  Dive.

We’re off to Bond Street.


3715E42E-52BD-4FE6-827A-143276A3F76D  kelly jones

A straightforward, stadium-pleasing song by The Stereophonics is a perfect analogy for my life at Big Fish.  It’s a classic driving tune.

At first, as the song gets going, there’s a straightforward, deceptively stripped back momentum.  It is pure. Liberating, even.  In my previous employment, corporate, cats-cradle complexity had bled the life out of me.  This new sense of motoring, in a wood floored kitchen of a studio in Lots Road, was an absolute joy. The people were exceptional. We pulsed forward.  Life seemed stripped back to the simple.  There was discipline to the way that people worked, with a sense of suppressed excitement that anything – anything – could happen. I wasn’t in the slightest bit surprised when, every now and then, the whole thing opened up with a full throttle roar. This was a job with a throb.

The Stereophonics power on through Dakota with unstoppable momentum.  One of the song’s great hooks is that its four progression chords have absolutely no idea of how to change direction, nor any intention whatsoever of actually changing. The metronomic synth under the verse is unstoppable. The time signature, if not exactly blitzkreig, is brisk. So much so that, when it’s all been going on for about six minutes or, in my case, four-and-a-half years, one is aware that the juggernaut has been thundering on for quite a long time and perhaps, now, it’s time for something else to happen.

In the closing, musical coda, when Kelly Jones swaggers into the chorus, blundering about at half speed, bellowing randomly as if gargling rivets, it becomes clear the conclusion is going to be a bit of a mess. The progression stops. The song grinds to a halt.  All sense of forward direction evaporates. The tune, effectively, hits the buffers.

Perhaps my departure from Big Fish wasn’t entirely like that, but there are some close parallels. Nobody was hurt.  Nothing really seismic happened.  Except that my part was played out.  It was the moment to throw my drumsticks into the crowd and wander off.

I should just conclude with two reassurances: a) I love the song Dakota (a zillion nights of very loud listening) and b), Big Fish was an incredibly enjoyable working experience on so many levels. It is an exceptional company.  In the end, I guess it was just a timed visit.

ISBN isn’t it.


I’ve always wanted to write a book.  Or perhaps, more truthfully, I’ve always wanted to say I’ve written a book.

Now I can.

It’s been fascinating.  I was commissioned to write about Wembley Park, the 85 acres around Wembley Stadium, by a small design consultancy called Sutton Young.  Their client, Quintain, has been responsible for the development of the place over nearly twenty years.

The idea was to capture something of the place, its transformation and glue it all together in a narrative. Twenty thousand words, three to four months in the capturing and writing and we’d all be done by January.  Or at least, that was the theory.

Wembley as a place, at the end of 2018, was a marriage of a globally recognised icon and seismic new construction.  I jumped at the chance. Approaching the subject through people who knew the inside stories, it was to be a fabulous, diverting education.  I shared a few, initial thoughts with Sutton Young who, in turn, talked it through with those at the top of Quintain.  The idea that ‘flew’ was a series of interviews where the last question would ask the interviewee to name the person who, to them, personified the true spirit of Wembley.  There were no constraints.  The choice could be someone living or dead, famous or not, known to them or else a complete stranger.

‘Pass It On’ was born.

On my first trip into Wembley after I’d been given the green light, I was on an 83 bus one early morning. ‘Do not spit Paan’ shouted little green signs hanging from the lamp posts on Alperton Way.  An £80 fine was threatened. We trundled past the magnificent, if slightly incongruous, Shri Vallabh Nihi Mandir.  A Hindu temple, its elaboration makes St Pancras look like Lego, with all its intricate details fashioned in limestone from Jaisalmer, a city in remote (ish) west Rajasthan where Clare and I rode camels during our honeymoon.   In Wembley Park, it was the night after an Anthony Joshua fight and the roads were festooned with huge posters and digital screens anticipating – correctly, as it had turned out – his win.

When Quintain bought the site, with its endless, desolate car parks and worse-for-wear industrial buildings, Wembley Park had one full time resident.  He was the Irish night watchman.  Sadly departed, he might have raised an eyebrow at the 7,000 people who now live in the area full time in addition to the 90,000 who flow into the place on the 40 ‘event days’ each year.  The scale and speed of building has been eye-watering.

I met fascinating people.  They granted me loads of time and spoke freely.  The upshot is a volume of slightly more than 20,000 words with accompanying photographs, somewhere between coffee table book and extended inflight magazine. Each interview was a fascinating, often funny and ceaselessly rewarding education.

Besides a fund of brilliant stories, I do now have an ISBN number to my name. I never thought I would.

Lots of people helped make it happen beyond the interviewees, particularly Mike Sutton, Charlie Byrt, James Kinsey and Michael Ibbison of Sutton Young and both James Saunders and Julian Tollast of Quintain.  Industrial quantities of thank-yous are due in their direction. And writing everything down, perhaps befitting to the pitch at the epicentre of Wembley, I had an absolute ball.

ISBN Pass It On intro12 Sergeant14 Harris17 Cotton

The Link din.


Before I start, can I just say that all Linked Inners, especially those to whom I am connected, are wonderful people.  I can?  Oh good.

Don’t know about you but I’m approaching Peak Linked. Every connection I ever made, those thousands of wondrous filaments, have meshed to an impenetrable fence. Linked In is now, to me, a clunking, pendulous chain that weighs heavily.

It’s not you.  It’s me – and a testament to too much casual linking. Ah, youthful impetuosity. I used to click and click. What was I thinking?

I’ve been ‘reached out’ to by myriad lovely people to the point that I’m no longer touched but just thoroughly, exhaustively fingered. The act has lost its pleasure. All that reaching and grasping has left me a mass of grubby thumb prints. I feel rubbed raw. So many people have offered to ‘share synergies’ with me, it’s a wonder I haven’t caught something. They always promise ‘mutual advantage’, these charming requests, but increasingly the invitations have the resistible allure of car keys tangled in the pot of a bunch of swingers from Frimley.

There are the droves of gorgeous coders, SEO magicians and email engineers from all parts Bangalore. They are, I’m sure, unfailingly brilliant. Quite rightly, they tell me that over and over again. Tssk.  I should have known.  The same goes for the massed ranks of intermediaries in the head hunting game. Enchanting people, I have no doubt, every last man, woman and Natasha, of whom there seem to be an inordinate number.

The language is worn thin with repetition.  The sparks are depressingly few and far between, in the grey slurry of selling messages and professional dating demands.

As for the simpering crowd of ‘honoured to’s’, ‘proud that’s’ and ‘humbled by’s’ who, for very human reasons to do with rampaging ego, lack of self knowledge and an eye on next year’s Cannes shortlists, feel compelled to share their latest creative washing on the Linked-In line: just stop it. Enough already. Please channel your inner Jennifer Aniston and demand of your sanity, IS IT WORTH IT? Exactly. Spend some more time in front of the mirror instead.

Most recently, it appears that the most effective ‘How-to-flog-stuff-on-Linked-In’ chain letter ever has reached truckloads of US digital businesses, because they now all conclude their invitations with the sentence, “Let’s hop on a call next week and discuss opportunities.” More and more, I keep both feet on the ground, some way from the telephone.

Oh god, I’m such a grinch.  Hypocritical too, because I’ve dabbled in a bit of hardcore sharing.  This little article here; that pack design we loved from the studio there; something funny or infectiously clever that I wanted to pass on, that might – just – reflect well on me.

Nevertheless, in the waterfalls of solipsistic self-reverence, it’s all one can do not to drown. It never ceases, this overload of business blancmange at best, a downpour of drivel at worst. It’s like being wrapped in candy floss and read the phone directory at the same time. Sweet but boring.

And yet. And yet…  There are, still, wonderful exceptions.  The piece about a new Spotify poster campaign this morning.  The agency is called Who Wot Why.  The work is excellent, with that current, understated, on-brand twang in the writing that the brand has made all its own.

UB40 Spice GirlsLondon Conferences Garbage Recycling

Hmmm.  Rant over and a sense of relief.  Perhaps I’ll take the fingers out of ears and my palms from over my eyes.

I wonder what’s out there? Perhaps one more teeny weeny look. Just one last lunge at the Links today.  Just one…