Three days after my wife and I moved into our first house together, the previous owner arrived unannounced at the front door.  He was a confident young barrister with a wife who was heavily pregnant: an aspirational couple, which no doubt influenced our decision to buy the house at the top of an overheated market.

I was upstairs when my wife opened the door, but I had no difficulty in hearing him, as he declared his business in his best courtroom voice.  He went through a few loose ends arising from the house purchase before producing with a flourish an object for us from his bag.


Of course.  It must, we thought, be often the fate of the humble grill pan handle to be separated from its parent grill pan: the grill pan stays in the oven and is going nowhere, while the handle is sent on its travels with the other contents of the utensils drawer. You’d think removals people would get used to that one.  Anyway, we gratefully accepted it and saw it happily reunited with its parent.  But the manner of its return stayed with us, and for some years our kitchen would resound to dialogue like:

“Please could you pass the GRILL PAN HANDLE” and
“Have you seen the GRILL PAN HANDLE?” and
“I put it to the court, M’lud, that this is the GRILL PAN HANDLE.”
Ours was a terraced house, and the lady the other side of the shared wall worked as a journalist on the Evening Standard.  I couldn’t comment on the quality of her research, but one day we did notice an article headed The ten biggest causes of marital rows.  Grill Pan Handles was right there at number three after money and sex.
A few years later, the anticipation and excitement felt on the approach of the year 2000 was qualified by fear of what the millennium bug might wreak on us: missile defence systems would be accidentally triggered and cause nuclear war, supermarkets would run out of yoghurt, etc.  In the event, thankfully, the bug turned out rather a damp squib, although it was reported that in two states of Australia bus ticket validation machines failed to operate.
But this rare turning of the year didn’t pass without an epic moment.  Just hours before the new millennium dawned, my brother phoned.  His family had moved house a few days earlier, and he had called me to report that the previous owner had just called round…to drop off the GRILL PAN HANDLE.  Or perhaps just the grill pan handle.  I don’t recall which, it was eighteen years ago.

Unused Tickets


When my mother died in 2007, my father was left with two pairs of opera tickets. Understandably, he didn’t feel like making a trip to the opera any time soon, and I was given the small task of finding a new home for them, and hopefully – in view of their cost – recouping him some of the value.

When I explained the circumstances, the Royal Opera House were very helpful: they simply asked me to bring them into their box office for a full refund, not dependent on resale. The other pair went to a Mr and Mrs Cumber whom Dad knew from his opera appreciation group. This gave me the chance to ask him whether they were the Richmond Cumbers or the Kew Cumbers. I was glad to see him raise a faint smile in response to this effort.

But it left a deeper impression when a friend commented that I’d been given a poignant task, and how sad it was that my mother hadn’t lived to use those tickets. And yes, of course, it was sad. But as I thought about it, my feelings changed. Should she have died with no tickets in the drawer, no holidays to look forward to, no plans? Mum and Dad enjoyed a long, busy and happy retirement, full of voluntary work, days out, country walks, family visits and holidays, and, of course, opera trips.

All of that took planning, and the planning was evidence of their intention to live life to the full for as long as they could. And I came to like what those tickets said about Mum and Dad.



I had to bring my daughter Emily to this place, to this beautiful place, where my mother brought me twenty-seven years ago.  “Remember this time.  It’s the way life should be.” And I sensed, even at the time, she was telling me that happiness is elusive and fleeting, as she held me in her lap, as we sat on the sand and watched the waves rolling in under the moonlight, and as I examined the pebbles in my hand.

And now in her memory we come back to this same cottage, arriving late and in darkness after the working day.  Emily settles in bed and is soon asleep while I look out of her window towards the sea.  I’m tired, but sleep won’t come.  I get up, and look at the moon shining through the trees, the trees which border the track down to the beach.

And an open top car quietly pulls into the driveway, and there is Emily’s father, but as I first knew him.  I know he cannot be there, and also that he is, and that I am seventeen. He waves and opens the passenger door and gestures me into the seat.

I leave the cottage and go to him, and we drive off through the forest without a word passing between us, and the wind blows our hair.  My heart races with fear, with excitement.  He gets out and stands at the edge of the trees, looking down on the sea.  Suddenly I feel the deepest longing.  I follow him and he looks in my eyes and we kiss, slowly and tenderly.  He extends his arm towards the sea.


He puts his finger to my lips.

“Shh.  There is nothing but you and me, the sea and the moon.”

And I see it is true.  So we walk to the waves, and paddle, and wade and swim.  And we play and laugh and hold each other in the silver sea.  Then as he looks in my eyes I feel myself being pulled down.  I struggle at first, but he smiles at me reassuringly, and I feel a sweet calmness upon me.  All is well.  All is well.





(Idea from Midnight by Five Fathoms Deep, and The Big Big Sea by Martin Waddell and Jennifer Eachus)

Fact Check: How to Hug


Statements: A man took a book out of the library called How to Hug.  It turned out to be volume seven of the encyclopaedia.

These statements have been widely circulated.  But are they true?

I realised they required investigation when it occurred to me that in reality a library was unlikely to allow a user to borrow a volume of an encyclopaedia: surely this would render the set useless as a reference tool if, for example, a researcher were then to arrive in urgent need of information about Huchown c. 1375, the mediaeval poet presumed to have been Scottish.  Already the scenario seemed unconvincing, and in need of rigorous testing.

The question I needed to answer was this: if there was indeed a volume of an encyclopaedia labelled How to Hug, what number might it be in the set?  Would it really be volume seven?  Fortunately I was well placed to research this, having a genuine traditional bound 14-volume (plus an index volume) encyclopaedia in the house: Chambers’s (yes, s’s) Encyclopaedia (1965) (reprinted with corrections 1970).

This set uses the same convention of markers on the spines to identify the coverage in each volume, although Chambers’s uses four-letter markers.  The entry for Howard, Catherine (the first entry beginning with How) comes on page 270 (coincidentally, of volume 7) and the entry for Huguenots (the final entry beginning with Hug) comes on page 284, 14 pages later.  There are a total of 5,281 pages in the set before the entry for Howard, Catherine.

Let us assume that Chambers’s Encyclopaedia has a typical alphabetical distribution of articles in an English language set.  Then if each preceding volume was similar in size to How to Hug, the How to Hug volume would be approximately number 377 in the series.  Furthermore there are a total of 11,652 numbered pages in the Chambers set: extrapolating this gives an estimated figure of some 832 volumes in a set for which How to Hug makes up an entire volume.

If these volumes were to be of any substance, and not mere 14-page pamphlets, this encyclopaedia would dwarf the French Encyclopédie (published 1751-1772) which contained a mere 35 volumes, although it might still be a lightweight next to the Chinese Yongle Encyclopaedia (1403-1408), which ran to 11,095 volumes.

Conclusion:  FALSE.  While it is quite possible that the section containing How to Hug might be a part of volume 7 of a 14-volume set, for the statement to be true of a single volume, it would need to be approximately number 377 of an 832-volume set. Furthermore it seems very unlikely that any competent librarian would allow piecemeal borrowing from such a large reference set.

As a postscript it is worth noting that history was not always kind either to Howard, Catherine, or to the Huguenots.  One can imagine the subject of either article needing a hug at some time.

Running and Cheating

Coe and Ovett

I love running, and the history of my race times for 10k’s, half-marathons, marathons and other random distances is all laid out through the internet, should anyone care. I’ve entered many races, and from time to time found myself unable to run due to injury, or with some clashing engagement. Sometimes you may be able to return your number to the organiser, who, perhaps for a small fee, can reassign it to another runner at your direction. But frequently this is not allowed, or the deadline to do this has expired. So it seems harmless enough, charitable even, to simply give your number unofficially to another runner – after all, the race may be sold out. And half marathons can cost upwards of £30 to enter.

But if you give your number to a slower runner, you’ll get a disappointing time against your name. Worse, if they are faster, you’ll get a great time which you haven’t earned, of which you’re not capable, and may have to face the congratulations or suspicions of fellow runners who notice it. My running history shows a wide range of performance stretching from poor to average. But it is mine, and it is true. This is why I have never given away my race number, or taken over anyone else’s. I don’t want to be a cheat. In a world of bullshit, some things should be kept pure.

But it’s easy to say that when nothing depends on my performance besides personal pride. At the elite end of the field, if an athlete can summon just a 1% improvement in his or her time – perhaps using performance enhancing drugs or blood doping – that translates to the length of the home straight in the 10,000 metres. That could easily be the difference between gold and fourth. We shouldn’t be surprised that athletes and their trainers are prepared to break the rules in pursuit of glory.

The athletics heroes of my (relative) youth were Sebastian Coe and Steve Ovett, who presided over a golden age of British middle-distance running in the late 1970s and early 1980s: between them they won three Olympic gold medals, two silvers and one bronze. They broke a total of seventeen world records in the 800 metres, mile and 1500 metres.

In his fascinating book on the rivalry between these two athletes, ‘The Perfect Distance’, Pat Butcher attempts to address the suspicions which Coe and Ovett inevitably attracted with their astounding performances. This is what Coe said:

‘I used to hear those rumours: “Oh, he goes to Switzerland, to Italy, for his blood.” I used to laugh it off, and Steve [Mitchell] and Malcolm [Williams] were mainly with me in Switzerland. I’m afraid it’s the sadness of sport. This is where you’ve got to be so careful about pointing fingers at people making big breakthroughs, because only in public terms is it a big breakthrough. In reality, you’ve been slogging away, mile after mile, weight after weight, ten years at a time.’

Not quite a denial, is it? Here is Ovett’s take:

‘I suppose when we were knocking records off left, right and centre people must have thought, What the hell’s going on here with these two? But I can put my hand on my heart, and on my children’s lives, that I never took an aspirin or a paracetamol at any stage in my career. I was frightened to death of doing a thing like that, and I’m very proud that I didn’t. So, you know, they can say what they like because I know the true facts.’

When read literally, despite the chilling decision to involve his children, this statement falls short of being a complete denial of taking performance enhancing drugs, and doesn’t address blood doping at all. The truth about drugs may be that they themselves don’t know: it would make sense to employ a ‘don’t ask’ policy with their scientists and nutritionists to enable them to believe themselves clean. However, it is unlikely that blood doping – which involves removing a pint of blood about a month before the event, then reintroducing it before race time to supercharge performance – could have taken place without their knowledge. I’d like to believe that Coe and Ovett were clean: they were my heroes. But their statements do not dispel the doubt.

Nor is cheating confined to the elite. There have been many instances, for example, of lesser mortals – often running for charities – cheating in the London Marathon: participants who, for example, run the first half in about two hours, only to then disappear from the timing mats until they are pictured beaming with their medal at the finish line at a time suggesting they ran the second half in near world record time. Typically they have simply turned left after crossing Tower Bridge and killed a little time before sauntering over the finish line.

Since the modern London Marathon began in 1981, one of the most regular celebrity runners – and now the most notorious – was the predatory and prolific sex offender, broadcaster Jimmy Savile.  He claimed to have run hundreds of marathons.  Before and after his death, and posthumous disgrace, there was much speculation in the running community about whether he had really done so, or whether he had cheated, perhaps by taking rides between photo opportunities.  Some runners offered anecdotal evidence of having overtaken him several times during the race while he had never passed them in return.

Jimmy Savile

Of course, set against his many serious crimes, this matters not at all.  But I found the question wouldn’t go away, and until recently, to answer it would require more research than I had time or energy for: the London Marathon results for the early years were confined to dusty libraries and ancient newspaper listings.


But a while ago the organisers of the London Marathon created a results database to celebrate the first one million finishers of the London Marathon, and it became possible to search online all results since the race was founded.  This has enabled me to carry out the research with the economy of effort better suited to a marathon runner.  So here it is.

Jimmy Savile’s London Marathon Times
Year Age Time
1981 54 4.08.28
1982 55 3.46.23
1983 56 3.33.59
1984 57 3.43.56
1985 58 4.02.00
1986 59 4.13.07
1987 60 3.46.14
1988 61 3.49.22
1989 62 3.49.52
1990 63 3.57.27
1991 64 4.12.37


Savile ran the London Marathon for each of its first eleven years, until he was 64 years old.  He is not shown in any results after 1991.  One caveat is that these years didn’t have the benefit of chip timing, nor the timing mats at 5k intervals which make it difficult to cheat the course.

I’ll admit that I took a look at this hoping to nail the guy, perhaps by finding a freakishly good time, or extreme variations.  But to my disappointment I couldn’t find much of a story here.  These times have the ring of truth about them: not so good they’re unbelievable, but consistent with a recreational runner of a reasonable standard.  His best times are only slightly outside the current (fairly demanding) “good for age” times for the Virgin Money London Marathon.  His 1987 time, for example, is only 74 seconds outside the mark.

One reason for scepticism about his times has been his assertion that he didn’t need to train for marathons: he claimed that he just turned up and ran.  Galling though this might be to runners slogging through their training programmes, if you run in as many races as Savile claimed to, that can itself be sufficient training to produce a respectable performance.

And Savile had an extremely high profile – it is difficult to imagine him slipping in and out of the race unnoticed. There is no credible evidence of cheating, and on this occasion – only – we should give him the benefit of the doubt.

Coe and Ovett, though?  I think the jury’s still out.


Postscript:  after I put a link to this story on Chiltern Harriers’ Facebook page, a fellow Harrier posted this:

“Much as I hate to defend him I ran most of the London Marathon with, or close to, Jimmy Savile in 1983 although he pulled away and beat me by a few minutes in the end.”

I found in the results for that year that the runner in question did indeed finish about eight minutes behind Savile.  As this was the year of Savile’s fastest London Marathon time (3.33.59) this suggests to me that his other results are also likely to be genuine.


boys in line

My primary school was near the middle of town: a Victorian building, surrounded by tarmac playgrounds, bounded by black iron railings. Boys would play in one part, girls and infants in the other. I remember it vividly. I went to look at it recently when I was in town: since 1967 nothing has changed, it’s still the same, even the light blue paint trying to brighten up the doors and windows.

There was a boy called Tony. A friendly lad, and bright enough that he was in 3a rather than 3b. He had a speech impediment, although he could always make himself understood. He also had an incontinence problem, which resulted in his wetting himself in lessons from time to time.

He was a playground buddy, and when we tired of kicking a sock-ball around the playground, Tony and I would join with a boy called Colin and the three of us would run around playing ‘it’ or some other game of our own invention.

At the end of break, or playtime as it was called, a teacher would come out and blow a whistle: the boys were supposed to form into orderly lines ready to file back into class. One day, Tony was standing close to the front. The boy standing behind him, who was called Carl, decided it would be funny to hold his nose (although Tony was dry) and take himself to the back of the queue. The next in line was a crony of Carl’s, and did the same.

One by one, as they came up behind Tony, the boys peeled off. I had started about ten places behind him, but rapidly moved up the queue. Soon it was my turn.

I went to the back.

Colin had been one place behind me. Now he stood behind Tony. There were jeers.

“Are you a bed wetter too, Colin?”

Colin’s face turned bright red, but he stayed there, and at last we filed into class.

* * * * *

Recently I discovered that Colin and his wife were running a small B&B in the West Country: as we were planning a holiday in Cornwall anyway, we booked a couple of nights there. It was a lovely place, and after fifty years Colin’s character was just as I remembered it. When we were leaving, I asked my wife to take a picture of the two of us. Looking at it later, it struck me how contented he looked – happy in his own skin, a good man.

At Brookfields

Care home

when’s the tea coming no no its coffee now what’s in the cup it’s coffee cold still full that must have been this morning’s when’s the tea coming I hope it’s not those bloody custard creams again it was nice to see Kathryn is she my wife oh no it won’t be she must be my daughter but she didn’t stay very long I don’t like the fat black woman who brings the trolley round no no I mustn’t say that turn the radio on there it is I’ll Keep You Satisfied Billy J Kramer & the Dakotas Lennon/McCartney I remember it made number four after a number two and a number one Bad to Me turn it up can’t hear it Peter next door banging on the wall screw you where’s my earbuds where’s my earbuds WHERE’S MY FUCKING EARBUDS ah in the drawer is that where I normally keep them condensation on the window I’ll climb on the chair to wipe it no it’ll happen again and I’ll get into trouble and they’ll tell Kathryn why doesn’t Emma ever come or was that Emma who came today she sometimes comes Wednesday afternoons is it Wednesday today last night asking the questions David Mitchell last night wasn’t it no the night before or did I watch it on catchup go out and play rummy no that finished I think no one else remembers the rules or they forget they’re in a game stupid old gits and wander off rude I know Duck Soup I’ll watch Duck Soup and fast forward to when Groucho comes in battery flat damn where is charger WHERE IS CHARGER oh in wall as usual bet it’s bloody fish tonight it’s always bloody fish it’s dark outside was it dark when I looked at condensation don’t know, what time is it six o’clock tells me nothing must be winter then morning or evening feel tired might go to bed when’s the coffee coming or is it tea bet it’s bloody tinned tomatoes for breakfast it was nice to see Kathryn