Jeremy Corbyn and the Large Flightless Bird

My brother Rob was visiting, and we had twenty minutes to pass before we could meet my daughter from her train.  Rob proposed a nostalgic wander around Rickmansworth, our local shopping town when we were kids.  We saw where our beloved Strawberry Fields record shop used to be (now a two storey car park), where WH Smith was and still is, and the previous site of the Cafe Suisse in Church Street – which we had often frequented in our youth – which was now the Tamarind Thai Cafe.  We had imagined that the Cafe Suisse might have been the “small cafe in Rickmansworth” which Douglas Adams was referring to in the opening passage of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
Sadly Adams didn’t specify which cafe, although there were few in Rickmansworth in 1978 when he wrote the story.  Perhaps he just picked a curious sounding place from the outer reaches of the tube map.  Anyway, there was nothing on the front of the Tamarind Thai to claim the glory.
Rob asked whether I went to Rickmansworth much these days.  Yes, sometimes, I replied.  When I’m pressed into service for the Waitrose shop…if I ever need an actual bank branch…if we want to get a picture framed…if we need a jewellers…
“Jewellers?  Do you often go the the jewellers?”
“Sometimes.  I went there last year to get my wedding ring resized.”
“Why did you get your wedding ring resized?”
“Because of a rhea related incident.”
I can be ruthless, and I decided he deserved the full story.
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It was Thursday 8th June 2017.  I know that, because it was General Election day.  My wife and I walked to the local hall which serves as a polling station to cast our votes.  It was a beautiful day, so we opted for a longer walk and carried on across the fields and through the place we call No-Dragon Wood – although that’s another story.
We emerged from the woods and walked on a footpath following the edge of a field close to farm buildings.  We were strolling along and chatting when I looked up and saw  a rhea charging towards us, wings extended, looking angry.  It must have escaped from the adjoining field where the rest of the flock were kept, separated from the public footpath.
You may not know much about rheas.  I certainly didn’t.  They are large flightless birds, in this case over five feet tall.  And apparently we had encountered this one at a bad time, because according to Wikipedia: “While caring for the young, the males will charge at any perceived threat that approaches the chicks including female rheas and humans.”
We tried to stand our ground but he was having none of it, and made aggressive pecking motions at us.  Soon it came after me – these fellows can run at 40 miles per hour – and in my effort to get away I stumbled on the uneven ground, landing awkwardly, and was still on the ground as the thing approached me.
Amusing, no?  Well, no, let’s hear from a “bird expert” quoted in the press:
“They look nice but they are so strong it’s unbelievable. They aren’t listed as a dangerous animal but can kill you with one strike of their feet because their claws are six inches long.  They will also go for your eyes with their beak.”
I managed to stand up again before he was upon me, and together my wife and I scrambled an undignified exit from the field, moving briskly but not running, keeping our body language passive (which we found easy) and our heads turned to keep him in view.
I gratefully closed the gate behind us and we tried to regain our composure.  It was only then that I realised my left hand was hurting slightly from where I had landed on it.  Over the next few hours the modest pain subsided and had soon gone altogether.  But there was one lasting effect: the proximal interphalangeal joint on the third finger of my left hand was fractionally thicker, and my wedding ring could now be removed only with great difficulty.
As you will know, Jeremy Corbyn that day delighted his supporters by losing only narrowly to Theresa May.
I waited for a few weeks in the hope that my joint would revert to its previous size, but it showed no such inclination, so I made the trip to the jewellers which you have read about.
The next time we received our voter registration Household Enquiry Form, we both ticked the box to vote by post in future.  Voting in person, we decided, was too exciting for us.  And we’ve never since entered a polling booth.
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The Top (Insert Arbitrary Number) Classic Nasty Songs

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There’s plenty of silly love songs out there.  In fact, you’d think that people would have had enough of them.  How refreshing, then, to change the mood sometimes with a bitter, spleen-venting, point-scoring, revenge song.  What I especially love about nasty songs is that people don’t always recognise them for what they are.  OK, you wouldn’t struggle to guess that Bob Dylan is having a go at someone in Like a Rolling Stone, but at least three of the following list feature regularly as request songs, one imagines, for loved ones.
This list makes no claim to be contemporary, so you won’t find Taylor Swift here.  But feel free to suggest any others you think should be included.  In no particular order, here we go.
One – U2  (1991)

https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=ftjEcrrf7r0

On a casual listening, when we hear the lyric “One love, one life”, it’s easy to think that we’re hearing a happy, upbeat warm-hearted song, perhaps in the same vein as Bob Marley’s “One Love”.  Uh-uh.  Try these lines for size:
“Have you come here for forgiveness?
Have you come to raise the dead?
Have you come here to play Jesus?
To the lepers in your head?”
Bitter enough?  I shudder to think how many people have requested it romantically for their loved ones without ever having listened properly.
How Do You Sleep – John Lennon   (1971)
“Those freaks was right when they said you was dead” says John ungrammatically, as he settles old scores with Paul, referring to the 1960s “Paul is Dead” rumour.  John was not happy that Paul beat him to the punch in initiating the break-up of the Beatles, or that the other three Beatles were not as smitten with Yoko as he was.
Typically, though, beneath the vitriol Lennon does still manage to hit the target when he sings “since you’re gone you’re just another day” and “the sound you make is muzak to my ears”.  McCartney’s early post-Beatle output was very disappointing: there were a few good songs, but it wasn’t until the release of Band on the Run in 1973 that he found any real form.  But Lennon couples the first of these with the outrageous lie that “the only thing you done was yesterday”.
Perhaps the cruellest jibe is “jump when your momma tell you anything”.  Perhaps, charitably, we can read this as a reference to Linda McCartney: if not it’s particularly vicious, because Paul’s mother died when he was fourteen.  John should have known better: his own mother died when he was seventeen.
Reputedly Ringo was upset when he visited the studio during the recording of the song and said “That’s enough, John”.
Paul showed no sign at all of losing any sleep: if he felt any guilt, he hid it well.  Diplomatically, he made no public response, although many felt that his song Let Me Roll It on Band on the Run was an affectionate Lennon pastiche.
Easy – The Commodores   (1977)
A staple of those schmaltzy Sunday morning (of course) request shows.  Sounds all sweet and romantic, doesn’t it?  But really?  Let’s have  a closer listen, right at the beginning:
“Know it sounds funny but I just can’t stand the pain
Girl I’m leaving you tomorrow”
Tomorrow?  Mate, if she’s got any sense she’ll tell you to sling your hook right now.  You wanna be free, and high, so high, and you’re way too cool to stay with one person.  She can help you with that.  Your stuff is on the sidewalk in the rain.  Hats off, though, for the tenderest, sweetest “you’re chucked” song in history.
Like a Rolling Stone – Bob Dylan   (1965)
“How does it feel
To be on your own
With no direction home
A complete unknown
Just like a rolling stone?”
No-one could write a nasty song like Dylan.  And it was probably safer, in those years, to be a known “enemy” at some distance (eg an arms manufacturer) than to actually know Bob.  The song, which spearheaded his move from acoustic to electric folk, came from a long typed rant of Dylan’s, and has never been definitively linked to a particular person – although it has at times been suggested that it was intended for Joan Baez or Marianne Faithfull.  Dylan has even hinted that in part, it might have been directed at himself.
Dylan’s biographer, Howard Sounes commented “There is some irony in the fact that one of the most famous songs of the folk rock era – an era associated primarily with ideals of peace and harmony – is one of vengeance”.  In any case he seems to have enjoyed writing and performing it: soon after this he came up with a similarly vitriolic song, Positively 4th Street.
 
My Little Town – Simon and Garfunkel   (1975)
“And after it rains there’s a rainbow
And all of the colours are black
It’s not that the colours aren’t there
It’s just imagination they lack”
Paul Simon wrote this for Art Garfunkel some five years after the duo split. Simon explained “It originally was a song I was writing for Artie. I was gonna write a song for his new album, and I told him it would be a nasty song, because he was singing too many sweet songs.”  However, the story goes that Simon had fallen in love with it, so they decided to record it together.  Art Garfunkel has said that it described his youth, saying he “grew up in an area where a career in music was not seen as either desirable nor exciting”.  Oh, and
“Nothing but the dead and dying back in my little town”.  Sweet.
Hi Ho Silver Lining – Jeff Beck Group   (1967)
Ironic that Jeff Beck, regularly featured in poll lists of best ever guitarists, is most remembered for this (often drunken) singalong which gives him little opportunity to display his virtuosity.  Beck’s record became much better known than British band The Attack’s version, which came out a few days earlier.
“Flying across the country, and getting fat

Saying everything is groovy, when your tires are flat”

I’ve always found this a rather dreary, predictable song.  But we owned the single, and back in the day we used to flip singles over.  This time I was rewarded by the astonishing “Beck’s Bolero”, a thunderously exciting instrumental.
This was performed by an ad hoc supergroup including Beck, Keith Moon, Nicky Hopkins, Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones – the last two, of course, later became half of Led Zeppelin.
19th Nervous Breakdown – Rolling Stones   (1966)
“When you were a child you were treated kind
But you were never brought up right
You were always spoiled with a thousand toys but still you cried all night”
Young Mick shares his thoughts on how to bring up kids.  Jagger first had the phrase “19th Nervous Breakdown” in his head, and then wrote the lyrics around it.  The descriptiveness and invention of the lyrics are reminiscent of the best of Chuck Berry or Lieber and Stoller:
“Your mother who neglected you owes a million dollars tax
And your father’s still perfecting ways of making sealing wax”.
The girl at the end of Jagger’s abuse seems more of a victim than a bad person, but these were tough times.  One more gem from this song:
“On our first trip I tried so hard to rearrange your mind
But after a while I realized you were disarranging mine”.
Before we leave Messrs Jagger and Richards, let’s take a peak at Stray Cat Blues, their 1968 celebration of underage sex from Beggars Banquet: (1968)
“I can see that you’re fifteen years old
No I don’t want your I.D.
And I’ve seen that you’re so far from home
But it’s no hanging matter
It’s no capital crime”
Well that’s a lyric that wouldn’t get written in 2018.
Every Breath You Take – Police   (1983)
Another song often casually assumed to be romantic.  That’s hardly Sting’s fault:
“Every move you make, every vow you break, every smile you fake, every claim you stake, I’ll be watching you”
Does that sound like a love song to you?  It’s quite clear from the lyrics, from the stressed vocals and the taut, menacing music that we’re in creepy, jilted stalker country here.
Sting started writing the song at Ian Fleming’s writing desk on the Goldeneye estate in Oracabessa, Jamaica.  Sting later said he was disconcerted by how many people think the song is more positive than it is. He insists it is about the obsession with a lost lover, and the jealousy and surveillance that follow. “One couple told me ‘Oh we love that song; it was the main song played at our wedding!’ I thought, ‘Well, good luck.’  I think the song is very, very sinister and ugly and people have actually misinterpreted it as being a gentle little love song, when it’s quite the opposite.”
So no, mate, she doesn’t want that played as a request for her.
A Well Respected Man – Kinks  (1965)
If you were ever tempted to invite Ray Davies to join you in a game of golf, pay attention. Davies was on holiday in a hotel in Torquay when a wealthy hotel guest recognized him and asked him to play a round of golf.  Far from being flattered by the invitation, he took great offence. “I’m not gonna play f–king golf with you,” he told him. “I’m not gonna be your caddy so you can say you played with a pop singer.”
This incident was the inspiration for A Well Respected Man:
“And he likes his own backyard,
And he likes his fags the best,
Cause he’s better than the rest,
And his own sweat smells the best,
And he hopes to grab his fathers loot,
When pater passes on”
Davies was later at pains to point out that “fags” in this context referred only to cigarettes and/or younger personal servants at public school.  In the UK, Pye Records refused to issue this as a single, preferring to play safe by sticking to the rockier style of their earlier hits.
This song deserves a special mention for rhyming regatta with get at her.  And neither should we forget Warren Zevon who instead rhymed regatta with persona non grata.
Dedicated Follower of Fashion was also considered for inclusion in this list, but failed to make the cut because it’s a little bit too affectionate.  But it does have the wonderfully risqué line:
“And when he pulls his frilly nylon panties right up tight
He feels a dedicated follower of fashion”.
Little Boxes – Pete Seeger   (1963)
“Little boxes on the hillside
Little boxes made of ticky tacky
Little boxes
Little boxes
Little boxes all the same
There’s a green one and a pink one
And a blue one and a yellow one
And they’re all made out of ticky tacky
And they all look just the same”.
I’d always assumed, on casual hearing, that this song was aimed at the houses which poor people lived in.  Which always seemed mean-spirited: the cool and successful folk singer sneering at the modesty and uniformity of the architecture.  There, it seemed, spoke someone who had never gone without indoor toilets, a home which could be kept warm, electricity, or hot and cold running water – all the things which standardised modern housebuilding brought to ordinary people.
But on more thorough listening…
“And the people in the houses all went to the university
And they all get put in boxes, little boxes all the same
And there’s doctors and there’s lawyers
And business executives
And they all get put in boxes, and they all come out the same”
So the song, written by Seeger’s friend Malvina Reynolds, is actually taking aim at the prosperous middle classes.  Who, typically live in large boxes, usually much more varied and interesting than the houses occupied by poorer workers.  And pretty well built, not made out of ticky tacky at all.  There are many reasons why you might want to have a pop at the middle classes, but the architecture of their houses seems a pointless target.  When you listen to this ditty, it’s worth bearing in mind that this was the same year in which Dylan wrote “Blowin’ in the Wind”.  Personally, I’m with satirist Tom Lehrer, who allegedly described “Little Boxes” as “the most sanctimonious song ever written”.
Twenty Four Hours from Tulsa – Gene Pitney
“Oh I was only twenty four hours from Tulsa
Ah, only one day away from your arms
I hate to do this to you but I love somebody new, what can I do?
And I can never, never, never go home again.”
Bacharach and David were great songwriters, but really guys, what were you thinking?  The singer has been unfaithful, so now he is letting his partner know that he’s dumping her.  Does he do this in person?  Does he call her up?  No, he’s writing.  So unless the US Mail is super efficient, she will have noticed his absence before she has any explanation.
Ok, he’s met someone new.  That happens.  But it doesn’t justify the self-pitying tone of the song, like he’s the victim here.  Not helped either by Pitney’s whiny voice.  If he was really concerned that he could never – never – go home again, he could have tried:
1) not telling her about being unfaithful
or even
2) not being unfaithful
but I guess that as he’s already told his new love he’d die before he would let her out of his arms, those options didn’t occur to him.
Like most writers, I’m standing on the shoulders of giants here, and must pay tribute to Ian McMillan of the Yorkshire Post, who has established beyond reasonable doubt that Pitney was writing his letter from Darfield, South Yorkshire:
One wonders, too, whether Gene has many possessions back home which are important to him.  We have already established that he can never – never – go home again, so it sounds like he will be relying on his ex to ship his stuff back to him.  Good luck with that, pal.

A Guide To Completing Your Wimbledon Public Ballot Application Form

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It’s the time of year for filling in your Wimbledon ballot application form.  Forms can be nasty and complicated, but we’re here to help you.

Don’t worry, you don’t have to use that scary interweb thing.  You can’t apply online, no sir.  We prefer to attempt to transpose your spidery lettering into our creaking old computers ourselves – we find it leads to fewer mistakes.  You can’t even print your application form from the interweb.  What we’d like you to do, please, is write your address on a large envelope, put a stamp on it, and put it inside another, larger envelope,  (or you could fold the first envelope if you prefer, to make it smaller, so that it fits inside the second envelope) put another stamp on the outside envelope, and send it to us.  Then we’ll send you a form.

When you get the form, please carefully follow these steps:

1) Please enter your surname in the boxes marked “Surname”.  Even if it’s a weird surname like “Smiths”.

2) Please indicate your title in one of the boxes marked Mr, Mrs, Ms or Miss.  If you’re a Dr, sorry.  If you’re a Mx, try again, in about fifty years.

3) Please enter your initials in the boxes marked “Initials”.

4) Please enter your Christian first name in the boxes marked “First Name”.

5) Please enter your telephone number in the boxes marked “Tel. No.”

Note: “Tel. No.” is a commonly used abbreviation for “Telephone Number”.

6) Please enter your post code in the boxes marked “Post Code”.

7) If you live in a house with a number, please enter your house number in the boxes marked “House No.”.  We have provided sufficient boxes for any street number up to 999,999. Or 99,999A.  Or even 99,999Z.  Leave out the commas, though.

8) If you live in a flat with a number, please enter your flat number in the boxes marked “Flat No.”.  We have provided sufficient boxes for any flat number up to 999,999,999, so there will be room for your number unless your block of flats is large enough to accommodate the population of China.

9) If you live in a house with a name, stuff you, you middle class git.  Your sort isn’t welcome at Wimbledon.

10) Please enter your address in the boxes marked “Address”.  Please do not use abbreviations.  If you write “Gloucs” instead of “Gloucestershire” we won’t have a clue what you’re talking about.

11) Please enter your signature in the box marked “Signature”.

12) Please enter the date in the box marked “Date”.

13) Please POST your form to: AELTC, PO Box 67611, London, SW19 9DT.  This is best achieved by putting your Public Ballot Application Form in an envelope, writing the address on the FRONT of the envelope, and putting a postage stamp on the TOP RIGHT HAND corner of the envelope.

14) If you are successful in applying for tickets, you must use the tickets yourself.  Both of them.  One for you, one for your bag.

 

We hope you find these instructions helpful.  Our experience is that tennis fans really aren’t very bright.  Champagne and strawberries anyone?

Best

The All England Lawn Tennis Club

but actually

The All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club Limited

and to be honest, we prefer croquet.  Nasty, noisy game, tennis.

Six Spades

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Bob settled up with the taxi driver and walked steadily into the village hall.  He enjoyed his weekly bridge game.  His wife of five and a half decades had died last year, and apart from Sunday lunch with his son’s family, this was his favourite outing.

He had loved Joyce deeply, but she had never been his ideal partner for the game – being often a step behind his reasoning – and he had long ago learned not to carry out postmortems on bidding or play.  She was aware of her limitations, and any criticism would have further damaged her confidence.  Bob had partnered her with love, patience and understanding, in cards as he did in life, and she would play with no-one else.

It was different when Bob partnered Geoffrey.  From the first, despite more than twenty years difference in age, they had an intuitive connection: they thought alike, and when dummy’s hand was laid out the bidder could always see his partner’s logic.  When they failed it was usually bad luck in the fall of the cards: they had a calm examination of what had gone wrong, and each agreed that they would have bid and played the hand as the other had.  More often, though, they won.

Bob felt the familiar tingle of anticipation as he turned over his cards, and held them close to examine them.  Not bad, there might be something on here…Geoffrey was clearly very strong in spades, his own Q-10-6-2 could support that…soon they had arrived at six spades, and Bob laid out his hand with his usual quiet assurance.

One of the opposing pair let out a small grunt, and there was a long moment when the three players all stared at the thirteen cards on the table.  Finally, with a tiny shake of his head, Geoffrey took the black queen out from under the ten of spades and placed it under the six of clubs.

Bob stared closely at the rogue card and put his hand to his forehead.

“Don’t worry about it Bob” said Geoffrey. “These things happen.”

Not to me, thought Bob.  Not until now.

He sat and watched their opponents clinically take advantage of his mistake.  Geoffrey fell one trick short.  Perfect bidding, almost.

On his journey home, the taxi driver tried to make small talk, but Bob was in his own thoughts.  At 89, he now felt truly old.  Old and useless.  He knew he had played his last game of bridge.  When he reached home he was soon asleep in his armchair.

Pulled Pork Baguette with a Side of Grief

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Fearful of mutiny by an angry mob of Striders, I thought it best to reconnoitre the walk route on my own, without pressure, so I could make my mistakes unobserved.  And I had made one or two, but managed to recover and regain the route before long.  So I arrived at the Cherry Tree, nestling in rural Oxfordshire, in good spirits.  I bought a pint, ordered my food and confirmed with the barmaid that the pub would be able to accommodate about twelve hungry and thirsty walkers of a certain age on a Monday lunchtime, subject to reasonable notice.

I chose a small table by the wall, sat down with my drink and fiddled with my phone while I waited for the food.  I was feeling quite contented, but perhaps I appeared lonely: a woman approached the table and addressed me.

“Would you mind if I joined you?  It’s rather better than eating on one’s own.”

I wasn’t sure I agreed with her: I’ve always been comfortable in my own company, and after a morning of walking, with occasionally stressful navigation, I wasn’t in the mood for making the effort to be sociable.  But she was no drunk or weirdo – a well dressed woman in her fifties: it would have been rude to turn her away.

She introduced herself as Clare, rather formally shook hands and sat opposite me at the small table.  We were too close not to talk, and I assumed that she wanted to converse rather than sit in silence.  So we exchanged small talk.  My food arrived before hers, and she gestured me not to wait, which meant that she was doing more of the talking.

She was partner in a firm of accountants in London and she had taken the day off.  She mentioned that her husband was a partner in the same firm, who commanded a huge daily charge out rate.  When the conversation turned, as it will, to the weather, I mentioned that it had been one of those rare summers when I wished we had a swimming pool.  She responded that she couldn’t say that, as they had one at home.

In a wide ranging and superficial conversation we agreed that Lord Carrington had been a gentleman, and that Boris Johnson certainly was not, we discussed our respective careers, and then she asked me if I had any children.  So I prattled happily about our older daughter, smart, diligent, funny, analytical, and our younger daughter, a small force for chaos, art student and singer in a band.  Eventually it was time to return the question.  I was about to step on a mine.

“And you?  Do you have children?”

“I had two of my own.  A son and a daughter.  And a stepson.  My daughter died in a road accident in July.”

“I…oh God…you mean last month?”  She nodded.

“She was 26.  She was driving home from work on a country lane and a truck came round a corner on the wrong side of the road.  She died immediately.”

I floundered at the enormity and horror of what she had just told me, and feebly attempted a few words of sympathy.  She continued.

“She was six months pregnant.  The baby would have been my first grandchild.”

So far she had been composed, but was now making an effort to hold the tears back.  I continued to mutter platitudes and shift in my seat.  After a few minutes we had both finished our meal and I wished her well and we said an awkward goodbye.

I resumed my walk, once again getting gently lost in the west Chilterns, reflecting on her courage in exposing her grief to a stranger in the pub, and hoping she found it somehow therapeutic.  And I thought of some things I could have said which might have been more helpful.  And Clare went home, I hope, to continue her slow healing process.  One day at a time.

No Dragon Wood

4FA768EC-7DBF-4124-ABB5-A0B08ECA7FE3It started off as one of those little jokes, those tricks so many parents play on their children to try to persuade them to take a little exercise.

After roast beef and Yorkshire pudding with Nana and Grandad, and once the dishwasher was happily chugging away, we tried a strategy to get our little darlings tired out by bedtime.

“Who wants to explore No Dragon Wood?”

Rebecca and Emma cried out in enthusiasm, tempted, as we hoped, by the exotic promise of the name. So we set off, and it was only when we reached the wood that Rebecca thought to ask us –

“Why’s it called No Dragon Wood?”

“Because there are no dragons here.”

She mulled this for a few seconds, and I sensed she was considering a complaint. But the logic in the answer persuaded her, and by now she was enjoying the outing. She giggled and carried on walking.

Of course a trick like that works just once, but as the girls grew older they discovered for themselves that a walk in the country could be enjoyed, and the route through No Dragon Wood – which continued to be shown on maps with the less romantic name of Bottom Wood – was a frequently chosen option.

There may have been no dragons, but I felt sometimes there was magic of a kind there. It nestled close by the M25, and the roar of that mighty motorway was ever present, louder still in winter. Perhaps this discouraged other visitors, but for me the place had an eye-of-the-storm peace. And there were very few houses nearby, putting it out of reach of all but the most energetic dog walkers. This meant that if one of these more energetic walkers, to give a random example, had a mind to sing loudly as he walked his Labrador through the wood, he could be fairly confident that none but the dog would notice. It was rare to meet another human there.

And perhaps the path through the wood once followed a regular course, but it was rarely maintained, relying on the few feet that walked there to improvise new routes around the many fallen trees. So it now wound its way up through the woods in drunken swirls, with moss-covered logs frequently strewn across.

Emma even used it for an art project, writing stories and making strange videos based on No Dragon Wood. It had become embedded in family mythology. So when one day I saw that the battered old stile had been replaced by a smart new metal kissing gate, I sensed an opportunity.

I sought out the fellow who administered the Chiltern Society’s Donate-a-Gate scheme, to ask whether a plaque with some appropriate wording could be attached to the new gate. I explained the story, and suggested that a more whimsical inscription might make a change from the many sombre benches and gates in memory of much missed Grandma, who loved to walk in these woods. He was very helpful, and gave me the good news that although his scheme was focused on central Buckinghamshire, and the gate was actually a short distance into Hertfordshire, the Society was on this occasion prepared to make an exception and take my money.

I consulted the family on the wording, and Rebecca came up with an extra line – “No dragon related incidents since 1415” – a phrase heavy with unanswered questions, and which hinted at the impossibility of proving the negative.

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And the plaque was duly installed and celebrated. We have walked through that gate many times in the last few years, congratulating ourselves on our little joke.

But this evening my wife and I are on the M25, heading home after a short break on the south coast, and we run into stationary traffic: we are being diverted off the motorway one junction short of our destination. As we inch towards the exit, we can see armed police by the roadside, police helicopters, huge military helicopters, and in the distance, just to the left of the motorway, a huge plume of smoke rising into the air.

 

 

 

THE GRILL PAN HANDLE

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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.

“AND THIS…IS THE GRILL PAN HANDLE”

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.