The Manx Missile

Yesterday, on the Champs Elysees a British sportsman stamped his authority on his sport emphatically. Simply the fastest cyclist in the world and now the owner of the Maillot Vert (Green Jersey) to prove it: Mark Cavendish has ruled the world of sprint cycling for four years.

Underappreciated in his own country for that whole time, Cavendish has become revered on continental Europe over that time. As he surged to victory in Paris last year, there was an audible gasp amongst those at the finish line marvelling at the unbelievable speed of the young man from the Isle of Man.

Even those people in the UK who have no interest in cycling have heard of Lance Armstrong. However, Cavendish has now one more stages of the world’s most watched (by actual spectators) sporting event than the successful Texan cycling legend. Cavendish’ tally of stage wins currently stands at 20 – and there’s more to come because he is nowhere near the end of his career.

Our bizarre sporting priorities in the UK mean that the grimacing, nasty, morally corrupt face of premiership football outshines all other sport. Even the suspect bedroom antics of footballers outshadow the achievements of genuinely great sportsmen. While our footballers struggle with an inability to win major world trophies, Cavendish is simply unbeatable in his chosen field.

While Andy Murray’s already long face has sunk into his boots following semi-final defeats over the last three years, Cavendish has been winning over and over again.

We should treasure and celebrate Cavendish. Every image of this young man exudes the confidence that comes from knowing you are the best. There is no false modesty in Mark but he rightly acknowledges the contribution of his team mates at every opportunity. At his best in adversity, he invariably wins stages which follow a rare defeat. The Manx Missile is not just the best at his discipline, he dominates it in a way no other British (or World) sportsman does at the moment.

To be honest, I couldn’t care that Cavendish goes unnoticed by many while they pursue their strange tribal loyalty to overpayed prima donnas who rarely show anything other than contempt for their fans. I suspect Cavendish doesn’t either.

I’m simply urging readers to take some pleasure out of British sporting victory. Cavendish walked away from the Tour de France yesterday with 6 trophies and a green jersey. It must be fantastic to be a champion but it also feels pretty good to be supporting one!



Wolf Hall

A description of Wolf Hall as a superb book is not exactly a revelation. After all, it was the Booker Prize winner in 2009. I’m not even sure if I’ve got anything new to say about it. However, I wanted to submit some notes about it … So here goes:

The story is basically an account of Thomas Cromwell’s life from his early years until Henry VIII’s promenade around Britain with his new wife Anne Boleyn. This time scale means that many of the most fascinating political upheavals of the Tudor era are described in detail. The fall of Cardinal Thomas Wolsey; the furious negotiations between the England and the Vatican, England and Spain and England and France in an attempt to validate Henry’s marriage to Anne; the excruciating chancellorship and decline of Thomas More; the commencement of the dissolution of the monasteries as well as the machinations of the Tudor court which betray a startling symmetry with the cloak and dagger politics of any age.

Thomas Cromwell by Hans Holbein

Although the Machiavellian maneuverings of the political heavyweights of the day are fascinating, it is the magnifying glass that glides over the personal life of Cromwell which breathes vivid life into the story. From the opening description of a brutal beating at the hands of his father to the portent laden visit to the seat of the Seymour family in the final pages, the story paints a surprising and intimate portrait of Cromwell’s life.

In these pages, Cromwell is seen as having the power of a modern Prime-Minister. His relentless quest to fill the nation’s coffers along with his ruthless loyalty to each successive superior makes his rise to power seem inevitable. The modernity of the man is leant further weight because of the resentment towards him from the noble-men of the day.

The sights, sounds and smells of the era are carried to the reader through carefully crafted description and rather wonderful accounts of Cromwell’s private life. As a boy, he encounters More in Lambeth Palace while trying to earn a few bob by running errands. An ongoing friendship, which verges on fatherly tenderness, with Mary Boleyn is thoroughly fascinating. The heartbreaking account of the death of his wife and children due to sweating sickness are all the more chilling because of the obvious normalcy of deaths of that kind, at that time.

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

If you haven’t read Hilary Mantel’s book, you really should give it a go. It is a stunning work of reality inspired fiction which, although demanding, rewards the reader with its realistic description of life in the Tudor era and strangely contemporary examination of the workings of high politics.

The Sinister Arrival of Mr. Snow

Greetings. I am Mr. Snow: evil leader of the frosty party. I will be introducing massively unpleasant cuts to university budgets and increasing the amount that all students will have to pay for their tuition fees. I know none of you will try to stop me because as long as I hang around, you will be more interested in trying to get your car driveway clear than you will be in the long-term interests of the young people of England.

I will also be introducing massive government interference in every single aspect of human life. Only a few months ago you all thought the state had too much power but now I’m around, you even blame the government for not doing something about the weather!

Oh. And by the way – I won’t be hanging around Scotland and Wales for long because both their “governments” are subsidising a grit production programme. No grit in England though – you can all kiss my cold, white, frosty bottom!

The Natural Ordure of Things

I don’t know whether you’ve ever woken up in the morning, walked out your back door into the warm sunshine and encountered a smell so ripe it virtually wallops you right back through the door again. Have you?

Or maybe you’ve opened the door and seen some puddles of water on the ground and realised it hasn’t rained, they weren’t there last night and there’s a funny smell. If you have, you will realise that I am about to talk about a blocked drain. A blocked waste drain. The drain which contains all the waste products your family have served up for the past few weeks and months. The drain which, to be fair, has not been draining (or anything like it) for a while.

If you couple this discovery with a man who mistakenly feels he has discovered DIY; a man has had far too many weeks off work; then you get a man who borrows a set of rods (or shitty sticks) from his next door neighbour and attempts to unblock his own drain! That man (you may be unsurprised to learn) is me! And, let me add that I set about this task in the full knowledge that I could have called “Dyno Rod” out for free and saved myself any of the humiliation I am about to share with you, dear reader.

A drain, yesterday (not mine!)

It all started well. I had a hook on the end of the stick and I slowly introduced the rods, one-by-one to the family treasures. Turning the rods clockwise (as the instructions told me), I found that in just twenty minutes the level of water (well…. liquid) began to subside. Then …. crrrrrthwump! The hook would not move. It would not move backwards .. it would not move forwards. I turned it. I wiggled it. I pushed it. I pulled it. I told it off. I begged it. I threatened it. I offered to buy it lunch (when we’d both had a wash) – but to no avail.

I realised it was stuck at the entrance concealed beneath the next man-hole cover (or Pandora’s drain – as I now call it). I won’t reveal what was in this drain but lets just say the liquid contact was negligible! The rods were buried beneath this unholy ooze and goo! After an hour of deliberation, I realised the only way I was going to free the rod was with my hand. My hand was now ensconced in a glove (and bin liner) and set off on the journey no part of anyone’s body should have to take. At one point, my disgust led to a sort of paralysis and loss of feeling. I thought my hand was lost. However, after a few tugs, the rods were free!!!!!

But the drain was still blocked!

“I’ve had a bit of trouble!” A more qualified drain clearer than me!

Now my neighbour arrived home. We decided that the blockage must be found before the next manhole cover and began to rod the contents of that drain. It seemed surprisingly clear and easy but then the rod was caught again. This time, it could not be freed. The drains were blocked. The rod was lost. I had failed. With an air of resignation, I gave in and called “Dyno-Rod”. They came the next day.

They unblocked the drain but could not rescue the rods. Still, it didn’t matter because the rods were not blocking the drain. It turned out we had been rodding the storm drain!

Next time I’ll call “Dyno Rod” or Frank Spencer or the Muppets!

‘Ere Stop Messin’ About

I love reading diaries and recently finished reading “The Kenneth Williams Diaries” as edited by Russell Davies. Kenneth Williams’ silly characters and risqué catch phrases are “right up my alley”. This is just as true of his faux folk singing recordings as “Rambling Syd Rumpo” as it is of his camp contributions on “Round the Horne” and various “Carry On …” characters (the black and white ones were a bit better to be honest).

Williams’ kept diaries from an early age and the “entries” cover 40 years from 1948 through to 1988. It was during this final year of the diary that he took his own life. The journals tell the story of an actor who began his career as part of an entertainment corps in the forces; progressed to working in repertory theatre around the country and eventually got in to film, television and radio work. As the 1970’s dawned, Williams’ primarily appeared as a guest on shows such as “Just a Minute” and “Parkinson”.

To say that Kenneth comes across as prickly is an understatement. Many of the entries contain snipes and barbed remarks about fellow actors and other contemporaries.  Amusingly, the editor of the diaries himself (Mr. Davies) appears to be a particularly loathed figure and is referred to as “a fat slob” on one occasion. Williams’ few long-term relationships are with his mother “Louie” and Gordon Jackson and his wife Rona. Tragically, even these people do not escape Williams’ acid tongue from time to time.

Some aspects of the diary are extremely endearing. Williams’ tales of working on Carry On … movies at Shepperton studios tell of a simpler age of British film making. The cast for these films earned around six thousand pounds per movie and were very much put together as a rep cast in local theatre might be. Kenneth clearly loved the “family feel” of the movies and held many of his fellow Carry on-ers in high regard. Particularly Kenneth Connor and Barbara Windsor. He also found children very engaging and could be kind and fun-loving in their presence.

It would also be unfair to make the nastiness in the book sound dreary – most of it isn’t. The nastiness reserved for Phil Silvers, Sid James and Charlie Hawtree is quite the most barbed display of hilarious unpleasantness you could wish for. No wonder Williams’ put together a compendium of such stories and phrases in his book “Acid Drops”.

Repressed both sexually and emotionally; convinced of his own correctness; gradually more reactionary as he became older and consumed by egocentricity, his life was a shadow of what it could have been. He emerges as a man so self obsessed that he constantly studied his own appearance in the mirror and publicity photographs. He was sometimes appalled by his own form and sometimes his own image stimulated violent self-abuse – which he amusingly terms “the barclays” as rhyming slang.

Williams’ denial of the homosexual desires that he felt produced constant laments for lifelong partners and soul mates he might have had. This repression produced the kind of self loathing which was inevitably self-destructive and led to an unwillingness to enter into any physical relationships. His (non-sexual) relationship with the playwright, Joe Orton, led to holidays in Tangiers and encounters with rent-boys. All these encounters led to self loathing episodes (and generally infestations as well).

There is yet more sadness in the way that he treated people who clearly loved him and were entertained by him. So often the diary mentions builders, workmen, police officers, members of the public and others who shout warm greetings to him. It’s clear that Kenneth loathed these intrusions into his life and couldn’t get away quickly enough. How sad that he didn’t like himself as much as others did. At no point did he seem to realise the affection in which he was held by the British public.

The final two years of his life seemed tortuous. Shackled by his social dependency on a decrepit mother and crippled by stomach pains, he seemed to lead an existence which involved walking around London, visiting endless doctors’ surgeries and shopping at Marks and Spencer’s food hall.

It made me sad to think that someone who had given so much entertainment could seem to see so little worth in his achievements and have so little in his life to make him happy. His diaries are a wonderful read because his use of language was so inventive and colourful. The journals tell a tale of the bleakest depression and a public persona that was cheeky and outrageous. Now I know the whole story, I find it tragic to think that his final communication with the world was “oh what’s the bloody point”. With that he folded his blotting paper into the page underneath the 14th April and closed the book.

Kenneth Williams: brushing teeth is so tiring

If you want to read the diaries of Kenneth Williams (which I heartily recommend) you can find them to buy on Amazon from 1p. Written by Russell Davies. ISBN 0 00 638090 5.

But however sad they seem, don’t forget this is the man who gave us …

Rambling Syd Rumpo …

Willo the Wisp …

and some Marvellous observations …

Or you could watch the excellent  Michael Sheen portrayal of Kenneth Williams in the movie “Fantabulosa” (2006).

The Doctor Who Wee-Wee Conundrum

I guess this next entry is going to seem a little puerile but I can’t resist: On our day out on Thursday (sorry for a repeat performance of this Barney and Ruth), Laurence noticed that the small entrance to the public conveniences at Paulton’s Park led into a deceptively roomy toileting area.

“It’s like the TARDIS in here Dad.” He said.

“What do you mean son?”

“Its much bigger inside than it looks outside,” he observed.

This prompted a much bigger discussion around the issue of toilets on the TARDIS. Are there any toilets on the TARDIS? Does Dr. Who ever need to go to the toilet? Would his toileting habits be different from those of humans?

We thought that if Dr. Who had a lot to drink, and felt the urge to go, he would only need to travel back in time before he had the drink. In this way, he would negate the need for peeing. Alternatively, he could travel forward in time to the point just after he had actually relieved himself and then he wouldn’t need to urinate. It was only later that we realised that this travelling forward solution would create a classic time travel juxtaposition which is that in order to go to travel to a post-urinary epoch, the Galifreyan time lord would still have to actually urinate at some point.

Doctor Who Season 5

Don’t go anywhere, I’m just nipping behind this bush!

I think it was Barney that pointed out that Dr. Who probably needs to provide some sort of facilities for his human sidekicks and that therefore there probably would be lavatories on board. I suspect he’s right. Even if the Doctor himself doesn’t need to go, you can’t just throw open the doors of the TARDIS and let people go out the door. This would be particularly inconvenient for his female companions and you can’t just leave waste products floating around in space. That would be inconsiderate and unpleasant.

doctor who series 5 matt smith 21 e1269805050181 How would a Doctor Who Game work?

“What do you mean, the vacuum of space will take care of it?!”

Once again, there are so few answers only more questions. What a curious universe we live in.

Desert Island Discs and the Pleasure of Podcasting

My i-pod is now two year’s old and it is a marvellous little thing. Through its helpful little ways, I have discovered audio books (loved re-reading the books of Douglas Adams this way and listening to The Picture of Dorian Gray). One of the most pleasurable things to have happened is a discovery of podcasts. I am a regular subscriber to many little gems such as “Science with Dr. Karl”; “Great Lives”; “Fighting Talk”; “Friday Night Comedy” and the enchanting “Desert island Discs” with Kirsty Young.

This is a programme that has been running on Radio 4 over the last 68 years and it has a simple premise. A guest is invited to come and choose 8 music tracks, 1 book and 1 luxury to take with them in the event of being stranded on a desert island. As part of the process, the guest then talks about their life with the host.

I love the fact that the criteria for appearing on the show is that one should have interesting things to say. Therefore, it is not necessarily celebrities who appear but people who have experiences, interests, mistakes and wisdom to share. Some are amusing, some are harrowing and in the case of Tony Adams (the former Arsenal and England footballer) his honesty was both harrowing and moving to listen to.

I’m not going to argue that this isn’t a programme for old farts. It probably is. And I probably am one but I love the premise and being as I’m never likely to be invited to appear on the programme, I thought I would spend some time thinking about what I would bring.

Disc number one has to be “No Quarter” by Led Zeppelin. I loved my school years. I was fortunate enough to attend Truro School in Cornwall as a boarding pupil. Now and then, in the evening I would walk up the hill to hang around with my old friend, Jeremy Rowe. Sometimes, we went into the chapel where he played the piano refrain from this classic piece of rock. They were good evenings!

No Quarter is on “Houses of the Holy”

Disc number two is “Jigsaw Falling into Place” by Radiohead. I am limiting myself to only one track by this band although I love so many more of them. I love the mathematically precise brilliance of this piece of music. Like all Radiohead creations, it seems so carefully crafted. Although it isn’t from their wonderful album “OK Computer”, the first time I listened to that album was when I re-awoke to music. I suspect Barney put it on in my car while visiting me in Hounslow but I shouldn’t like to say I’m sure about that because he’d be horrified if he doesn’t like that album.

Link to Jigsaw Falling Into Place

Disc number three is “Fools Gold” by the Stone Roses. Every Tuesday of my first two years at University; Luke, Dolph, Raf or George and myself went to “The Gatsby”. To be honest it was a shit-hole but the drinks were cheap and they played all the music we were into – Wonderstuff, Happy Mondays, New Order and of course the marvellous Stone Roses. Sadly for Dolph they never played The Pet Shop Boys (the only band who were allowed minus marks in our halls of residence’ juke box jury).

The Roses in their pomp

Disc number four must be “Sweet Thing” by Van Morrison. How funny. I’ve attended two of Van’s gigs. One of these was very good and at the other he was a miserable old git and very bad! This doesn’t change the fact that just after Bethany was born and I was the first to get to hold her, I went to Tesco to get a few supplies for Emma who had suffered the section. The first song that came on in the car was “Sweet Thing” and the affecting nature of the song brought up that well of warm emotion that I felt at the time. To this day, it still does. Quite beautiful!

Van Morrison’s Sweet Thing – Do yourself a favour and buy the whole album – it’s wonderful!

Disc five must be a  Pink Floyd track because I have loved their music for such a long time. However, which one should I pick? My favourite is “Time” so I’ll pick this one. Even though it is melancholy, I love the structure of the song and Roger Water’s description of time passing by so quickly is as easy to identify with as I approach 40 as it was when I had that snotty, public school, teenage boy  issue of existential angst when I first heard it. I must say I’ve struggled hard not to pick “Comfortably Numb” though.


Pink Floyd – “Time” maybe I could sneak “Great Gig in the Sky” onto the end of this track.

The last three discs are going to be cheesy because there always has to be room for Cheese. So, disc six is “New York, New York” by Frank Sinatra. On our wedding day, we had a fantastic party in the evening. My friends and I hassled the DJ once we had had a skinful. He played this song and there was a very drunken sing along. We still laugh when we remember that evening. I’m not sure one should look back on one’s wedding night and laugh!

Disc seven is “Leave Right Now” by Will Young. Now before the sharp intakes of breath, this disc is, of course, associated with a cherished memory: In my first year of teaching Year Six, Judy and I produced a version of “Romeo and Juliet” to perform. At the ball where the main characters met, there was a beautiful ballroom dance choreographed by Helen Tibbett which was so lovely. It was a super performance and they were lovely kids.

Disc eight is “Things” by Bobby Darin. Very simply because it makes me smile. Laurence and I sing this together as a duet. It is suitably silly for both of us!

Now I am allowed a book. I get the complete works of William Shakespeare and the Bible for free. I don’t know if the rules allow me to leave the Bible and take an extra book but I’m going to assume I have to take it and am still only allowed one book of choice. This choice is easy. I would want an anthology of PG Wodehouse. I would never stop smiling and laughing out loud with the antics of Bertie Wooster, the occupants of Blandings and the young men of the Drones’ club.

Finally, I am allowed a luxury item. This would be a permanently cold flask of gin and tonic. Its going to be sunny, I’ve got music and books. I might as well have a drink to go with them.

Well that’s my selection – maybe you want to put posts on here and tell me about yours. I expect there would be some fascinating choices!

If you want to podcast Desert Island Discs visit