Musings, Writing

A year on

Oh, look – MMC’s posting pictures of watches again. Yes, it’s a rather nice GW-5000, the one with the proper screwdown back and metal inner case (G-Shock nerds only need apply). But it’s the time that’s significant, not the watch.


This time last year, I was away with the fairies as Mr Tristram Barton was, quite literally, screwing my leg back together after I’d bust it in three places. I’d rather stupidly fallen down some concrete steps near the Kennet & Avon canal just outside Bath.

As I was tucking into my post-surgery lunch (bloody good it was, too) I quietly set myself a challenge. This time next year, I decided, I’d run the 4.5 miles from the start of the Kennet & Avon at Sydney Gardens to the Dundas Viaduct at Monkton Combe – where I’d fallen.  As I could only ‘walk’ on crutches at the time and was going up and down stairs on my arse, I thought that was a decent enough goal.

Christmas and January were, with huge frustration, spent on crutches and trying to run a business from the sofa. I was out of plaster on February 16th and into physio on the 20th. My wonderful physio Rona signed me off on June 10th and I started running (ok, shambling like a sack of cats) again in mid July. Rather than being my usual baresark, know-it-all self, I did a proper couch to 5k plan and built up slowly.

By the end of August I was up to 5k again and the screws were still holding my leg on.  The NHS had done their usual fine job.  I was delighted that I could start running regularly again from the office; there’s a gorgeous route that goes along the Windrush valley.

So, early this morning (timed to match when I’d gone under the knife last year), the ever-patient Pip drove me to the start at the edge of Bath, wished me luck, implored me to be careful and not end up in the canal, and waved me off.

So in 3 degrees, hacking sleety rain and a river of mud I splashed off along a sodden canal towpath – and loved every minute of it. Apart from Pip, who appeared at the bridge over the canal in Bathampton to cheer me on, and a couple of other runners, I had the place to myself.

It’s a gorgeous run, even in the middle of winter.  Countryside, canal boats, brick-built bridges and the peace that comes from being alongside water.

Pip, ever indulgent, was waiting again in the hacking rain on the last bridge before Monkton Combe.  As I ran the final few yards towards her and the viaduct, you could probably have used my grin to power the national grid.

I know proper runners (and probably a few who’ve never run in their lives) would sneeze at my crappy 12 minute mile time.  But, given the mess I was in this time last year, I’m just pleased to have been able to do it at all.

I’ll be raising a glass this evening to John and Stewart, the paramedics who scraped me off the path with a huge amount of good humour, Caroline (world’s finest brownies) and her team at RUH Casualty, the kind and patient Steve Laver, my anaesthetist, who is reassurance personified, Mr Tristram Barton for some damn fine carpentry, Rona, my business partner James who acted as my unpaid driver to innumerable meetings when I was plastered and – of course – the utterly amazing Pip, who looked after me better than I deserved despite still being on crutches herself.

And, post-toast, I’ll be avoiding concrete steps.

Musings, Writing

Singing at Christmas


At this time of year, for me, as the temperature goes down and the decorations go up, there’s always a ‘Carols for Choirs’ shaped gap.

As a six year old boy treble and then as a young counter tenor and bass, the weeks from September onwards meant only one thing – Christmas.

The run up to Christmas Day was linked together with a paperchain of rehearsals, concerts, services and carols. Learning new music, and adding more pencil marks to the annually-distributed copies of Carols for Choirs as we polished well-sung, familiar arrangements.

Before the bright and church-rammed Christmas morning service, there was the far more magical Midnight mass. As trebles in a market town parish church that fancied itself a cathedral, with choral standards to match, each of us hoped we would be the one to have Stephen Cowley, our choirmaster, tap us on the shoulder as we lined up in the vestry to process in. That tap, and Mr Cowley’s calm words of encouragement, meant you’d be taking the treble solo in “Once in Royal David’s City”.

At the back of the darkened church, the chosen treble would get a simple three note ascending phrase from the organ and be expected to launch, on his own, into the first verse of the well-known carol.

With the inevitable nerves there was a good chance of going sharp. If the carol had been unaccompanied throughout, this would have been of little consequence. Only those with perfect pitch would, perhaps unseasonably, have winced a little. But, sadistically, the piece’s arranger, David Willcocks, had written the organ accompaniment to start at verse 2. If you’d strayed any more than a tinselswidth out of pitch it was both painful, public and obvious.

This was the worst of our fears until the tapped singer was the junior treble, Neville Poole. Neville was a whirlwind in a cassock and surplice. His voice was exceptional, but getting him to concentrate on one thing at a time was like crocheting butter. He was almost humming with anticipation and excitement by the time he’d reached the back of the church. It was Neville’s moment of glory. Only his brother, Nigel, who was Head Chorister, looked a little concerned. But I don’t think even he realised what was coming.

The choir arranged itself in an arc, facing the east end and the high altar. The organ played the quiet ascending introduction of D, F#, G and Neville took a breath and started singing. It was a few seconds before the choir realised that, rather than starting (as he should have) on the D, he’d kicked off on the G – a perfect fourth higher.

This would make things problematic for Stephen at the organ console as he’d need to transpose at sight for his verse two accompaniment. But this was easy by comparison with the task Neville had set himself, his fellow trebles – and the congregation. Rather than having to stroll up to a simple E in the second half of the verse, they’d now have to hurdle a rather higher clean top A when they reached “Mary was that mother mild.”

You could almost see the thought processes of the other trebles as they worked forward and realised they’d need to clear the high C in the last verse descant. Plenty of worried looks and mental warm-up stretches started.

This was going to be interesting.

Neville, meanwhile, sung on unaware of the chaos he was about to create. At least, he did until he reached “…in a manger for his bed”, the line just before Armageddon A, and realisation dawned. He and I were standing at opposite ends of the choir’s semicircle, so I was facing him when he realised he’d started squealingly too high. I imagine skydivers who find their main ‘chute has failed wear similar facial expressions as they hurtle towards the planet at 120mph.

But, Neville being Neville, he just went for it. The Christmas angels were clearly on his side that midnight. He hit his top A as though he’d meant it all along. The rest of us broke out the crampons and ice-axes and followed him up there on verse 2 and the last verse descant. The only members of the congregation who even attempted it were the small crowd who’d rolled out of the Blue Boar and poured themselves in just as the service started. Actually, they didn’t do a bad job.

But even mistakes became part of the choir’s Christmas traditions. A fine example was Darke’s setting of “In the Bleak Midwinter” and Herbert White’s – a wonderful, natural tenor – solo. Even in his late 70s, he’d lean back against the choir stall and let his voice ring round the chancel’s vaulting as he soared up to “The ox and camel which adore.” Every year, without fail, he’d get the words wrong, singing “The ox and ass and camel we adore” until it would have, quite simply, been unthinkable for him to have sung them as Rossetti intended.

The year after Herbert died, I was touched beyond words to be asked to sing his solo. Of course, I made sure I sung the words just as he would have wanted.

In the weeks leading up to midnight mass we’d carol around the old people’s homes in the town. As a treble, I’d look forward to the apparently bottomless bags of sweets and sugary hot chocolate provided at each stop. When my voice broke and I sang with the back row, a nudge in the ribs and a passed hip flask as I paged through ‘Carols for Choirs” to find the next piece meant I finally felt one of the Gentlemen of the Choir.

As we walked, increasingly unsteadily, between each home, we’d launch a few verses mistily into the freezing air, just for the hell of it. We’d swap parts and laughter as basses falsettoed their way up to treble descants. We often found our way into one or two pubs along the way too, replacing their comfortably beery background hum with a verse or two of “Hark the Herald” or “We Three Kings”, with the regulars joining in with “Ohhhhhhhhhhh starofwonder…”

Later, singing with my school’s chamber choir, I remember a candle-lit carol service at Holy Trinity, Dilton Marsh, a village between Frome and Westbury. It was our wonderful choirmaster, Garry Jones’ home patch, so we were determined to do him proud. We sang one to a part, and in Britten’s “Hymn to the Virgin” I exalted in the unity, control and freedom that singing in small choirs gives. Gratia divina.

The next year, we sang at the cathedral in Wells. I found myself in the darkened chancel, desperately trying to stop the lit taper I was holding from betraying my nerves. I was to sing the unaccompanied, baritone solo from Vaughan Williams “The Truth From Above” at the start of the service as the whole packed cathedral was in darkness.

I’d rehearsed until, had it been any lesser composer than RVW, I’d have hated the piece. But, as I held the tuning fork that gave me my note to my ear and began the first line, “This is the truth sent from above…” any apprehension dissolved against the glory of Wells’ soaring acoustics. A donkey would have sounded good under that roof. I still remember the kind words of a lady from the congregation as I left the cathedral. “I hope the next time I hear you, young man, it will be on Radio 3.” That would have been wonderful indeed, but not to be.

By contrast, I’d often cycle from St John’s to St. Katherine’s, a tiny village church in East Woodlands, a few miles away. They were short of men, so any reinforcements to the back row were welcome. Just after my voice broke, I sang my first Christmas morning service there as a newly minted bass. In fact, the only bass and with a packed church.

I slung my bike against a gravestone and just about squeaked in on time to find the music in my stall included Willcocks’ arrangement of “Away in a manger”. Easy enough, I assumed, flicking ahead to the next page of music. Until we started singing and I reached the semiquaver runs in “The stars in the bright sky” and nearly had kittens as I attempted to sight read my way through it. I learned two things – it wasn’t half as difficult as it looked and to read through the music before I started singing.

But, every year, the pattern was the same. Christmas began as the school term started, with unfamiliar, new carols and culminated on Christmas morning with the last, ever-familiar chords of “Yea, Lord, we greet thee, born this happy morning” underscored with the 16ft pedal reeds of the ancient Norman and Beard organ as we processed out of the chancel’s polished brass gates to Christmas dinners and presents.

Even though I sang my last Christmas service in Frome twenty eight years ago, I still miss it.


Watches, Writing

Happy Birthday, M. Breguet

Today will pass in most people’s diaries with never a thought for the man behind so many elements of the watch on their wrist.  Abraham Louis Breguet was born 270 years ago today in Neuchâtel, Switzerland.

Automatic winding, tourbillons, gong-repeaters, more accurate escapements, better hairsprings, shock-absorbing escapements, lubrication-free escapements… Breguet was responsible for either inventing or significantly improving them all.

Yet, for a man who brought such ordered beauty to watchmaking, he lived and worked through some of the most chaotic and ugly times in European history.

Imagine. It’s the 1780s, you’re a French watchmaker and your work is not only being bought by Marie Antoinette but the titled and wealthy glitterati of the day. Even better, the French Queen is – in modern parlance – your brand ambassador, telling anyone who’ll listen that you’re the finest watchmaker in France, if not the world.

Cut to May 5 1789 and the start of the French Revolution. Proof, if ever it was needed, that celebrity endorsement can end up being rather more of a burden than a boost.

Welcome to Breguet’s turbulent life. As watchmaker to the rich, royal and famous, hanging around in revolutionary France was likely to cut Breguet’s career short in more ways than one. Being both smart and commercial, he packed his tools and headed home to Switzerland.

And that’s where he conceived the idea of his single-handed Souscription watch. It was a perfect idea commercially, horologically and democratically. Anyone could make a down-payment (a souscription) for their watch which allowed Breguet to keep his cashflow running and start making it.


Breguet’s Souscription No. 580 from 1800. Image from

The watches were simple (by Breguet’s standards), and were designed to be repaired by any watchmaker. You’d set the single hand with your finger or a sliver of wood and wind it through the hand’s centre. That’s because the barrel is in the middle of the watch with the balance and second wheel engineered symmetrically around it. No need for friction-generating motion work either. Genius.

You could even have your Souscription fitted with Breguet’s montre à tact system that allowed you to feel – rather than see – the time by touching tiny protrusions from the watch case.

62mm of simple, classical gorgeousness with so much history inside the case there’s barely room for that beautiful movement. The only thing better than owning one would be the chance to have met the man whose workshop made it.

Happy 270th birthday, M. Breguet.


Cargoes. Updated.

Car goes.

British racing Jaguar from Surrey’s leafy verges,
Wafting home to pebbledash in sunny Haslemere,
With a cargo of brown envelopes,
And sherry and golf clubs,
Sandalwood aftershave and a crate of beer.

Gleaming blacked-out Bentley coming from the night club,
Growling through the avenues to a Mayfair mews,
With a cargo of blondes,
Brunettes, footy mates,
Gold Rolexes, paparazzi and a boot full of booze.

Thrusting little Audi with its foglights blazing,
Butting down the M6 to the sales away-day,
With a cargo of laptop,
iPhone, Boss suit,
PowerPoint, pointy shoes and bonus pay.

With profuse apology to John Masefield.

Musings, Writing

An open letter to the Chancellor.

Today, George, you delivered your first budget as a Tory chancellor. Those who voted for you – the people who believed Conservatism was about a hand up, not a hand out and who run their own businesses – are now sitting shellshocked, wondering how they could have been so utterly gullible.  They should have realised that the die is cast at prep school when the scions of the seriously wealthy first realise the earth is theirs, their pals’ and everything in it.

Thanks to you, they’re instantly around £2,000 a year worse off.  That’s because they always believed Tories thought owner-managed businesses were a good thing.  How wrong they were.  As you dish out Corporation Tax and Inheritance Tax cuts to your City pals, the changes in dividend taxation means small business people feel the pain.  Overnight, they go from getting taxed once, through Corporation Tax, to twice; once corporately and then again personally.  And they’re the lucky ones.

Many of them got a full grant for a university education; one of the most reliable ways of getting up and out of the swamp. Today, they wouldn’t be able to afford it.  No more grants; it’s loans instead.  If they believed that education was about more than landing the plummiest job (no old boy network for them), they’d be screwed today.

But that’s OK. A university education only makes the plebs uppity. They should know their place, shouldn’t they, George?

They’ll have come out of university and rather than enjoying a gap yah or an internship, they’ll have got a job. A shitty, badly-paid job (no old boy network, remember?) But they’ll have worked hard at it and clawed their way up a bit.  And worked hard at the next one too.  Then the next.  And the next.  And that’s fine, because they knew that no one could take what they achieved away. Until today.

This latest tax grab on those who dared to believe that they could make a go of running their own businesses is the worst.  Not because it instantly removes a chunk of their incomes, but because of what it means.

It may look, from the outside, as though they’re doing alright.  And, compared with most, they are.  But it’s precarious and a constant struggle.  They know that next month’s mortgage payment depends on capricious clients, unstable markets, luck and their own climb-that-bloody-hill determination. There’s no safety net, no employer to help out with sick pay, holiday pay, pension provision or benefits.  That’s fine too – their choice and they’re used to it.

But George, you and your pals have family fortunes and trust funds that mean you’re able to make mistakes. People like them don’t and can’t.

But even that’s fine too. they don’t want help from you or a Ma-Pa corporation. But what they do want is some acknowledgement that your world view – big houses, Pimms on the terrace and a maid to serve it – and theirs, are very very different.  And they want a little certainty; that someone like you can’t simply walk up, whack them round the head with a tax-filled sock and take a chunk of their income away.

George, you talk a lot about aspiration.  Plenty of people aspire and have been aspiring since they started.  But it’s bloody hard to keep at it when someone who’ll inherit a few million stamps their handmade Lobb boot on their head every time they start trying to get up.

You talked today about a level playing field.  But you’ve made it clear that means the rest of us doffing our caps as we cut the grass, not being allowed onto the wicket to play the game.

Aspiration. Tonight there are plenty of people thinking you don’t have a bloody clue what it really means.


Storm in a (free) teacup

Diplomacy. The art of telling someone to go to hell in such a way that they look forward to the trip.

I thought of this when an email from Waitrose arrived today.  I am no great advocate of being rude to customers.  Neither am I fan of sugar-coating the truth.  Customers aren’t as daft as businesses believe.

Which is fortunate, as Waitrose must think its customers are a bit slow on the uptake.  They’ve just sent an email to Waitrose loyalty card holders that seems to reveal a little corporate unease about the free tea and coffee they currently enjoy.

This email, headed ‘Enjoying your free tea or coffee’, should carry one of those little red government-sponsored tags that warn about too much sugar in things.  It’s so sugar-coated and faux-sweet that hysterically-laughing dentists are jamming the switchboards of every Porsche dealership in the country.

OI, peasant! Swipe yer ruddy card!

OI, peasant! Swipe yer ruddy card!

It starts:

“As you may know, offering a complimentary tea or coffee while you are shopping with us is one of the ways we like to say thank you for your custom.”

OK, a little over-sweet perhaps, but my fillings only hurt a little bit.  And that’s just from the “…like to say thank you…” line.  I’d not noticed any other ways you like to say ‘thank you’, Mr Lewis.  But we’ll let that pass.  There is better to come.

Get a bucket handy before you read the next line. Seriously.

“Just in the same way as a friend might offer a hot drink when you visit their home, we think it’s what a caring business should do when a loyal customer shops with us.”

Told you.  I’ll wait while you recover.

The case for the prosecution cites adjective overload, the inappropriateness of a domestic analogy to a national retailer and the sheer yuk of ‘loyal’.  But this is not the poor whipped Waitrose writer’s fault, I suspect.  A paragraph like this is so internally-focused it can only have been written by someone whose seniority outweighed their writing ability by a serious factor.  It must have been someone on the board.

“That’s why we’ve come up with this short guide to help all our myWaitrose customers make the most of the scheme and to remind you about scanning your myWaitrose card. We hope that through observing this free tea and coffee etiquette, we can continue to offer a complimentary hot drink each time you shop with us.”

I’ll hold off contacting Amnesty about the blatant torture of grammar, but “observing this free tea and coffee etiquette”?  Really?  I’m calling you on this one, Mr Lewis.  I know a threat with menaces when I see one.  I either give you my customer data or you deny me my free coffee?  Right?  And you thought that the old ‘hot coffee’ close would keep people in the shop for longer.  Fair enough.

And Mr Lewis is clearly serious.  He makes that clear in the next paragraph:

“…we will be asking myWaitrose members who wish to enjoy their free tea or coffee in one of our Cafés to also purchase a treat – such as a sandwich, cake, biscuit or piece of fruit. This change will enable us to continue to offer our customers the enjoyable service they expect.”

Interesting attempt to take the sting out of it by the use of the future tense – “…we will be asking…”  But it still can’t obscure what’s really going on.  No more nipping into the cafe, helping yourself to a Daily Fail and a freebie coffee and taking space that could be used by a proper, paying customer.  And since when was ‘a piece of fruit’ a treat, Mr Lewis?  Or a sandwich?  Come off it, old chap.

Once you’ve weeded out the weasel words, taken a geological hammer to the sugar coating and got to the real message, it looks like this:

“Dear Customer,

We’re sorry.  It was all a terrible mistake.  We didn’t realise that offering freebie tea and coffee would see us haemorrhaging profits like the French aristocracy in 1789.  The car parks are cluttered up with trashy old ’62 plate Evoques. There are people in training shoes and tracksuit bottoms calling the Partners “mate”.

It can’t go on.

For pity’s sake, we’re even giving away bean-to-cup to people who can’t pronounce ‘quinoa’ properly.  We’ve had to have our Financial Director resuscitated several times this week – and it’s only Wednesday.

This has to stop before we sink under a tsunami of free Columbian.

It’s simple.  Swipe your sodding Waitrose card – or get the butler to do it – before you help yourself to your free cuppa.  Or we’ll set the bloody dogs on you.  OK?

Yours, desperate for a way out of a very, VERY expensive customer perk but hoping no-one notices if we do it bit by bit,

Mr John Lewis”


The best writing advice. Ever.

Sixty four years ago today, George Orwell died from tuberculosis in a London hospital.  Not only was he – in my opinion – the finest writer in English, in Politics and the English Language he left scribblers some of the finest advice.

Here it is…


George Orwell, doing what he did best. Changing people’s minds.


“A scrupulous writer, in every sentence that he writes, will ask himself at least four questions, thus:

– What am I trying to say?
– What words will express it?
– What image or idiom will make it clearer?
– Is this image fresh enough to have an effect?

And he will probably ask himself two more:

– Could I put it more shortly?
– Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?

One can often be in doubt about the effect of a word or a phrase, and one needs rules that one can rely on when instinct fails. I think the following rules will cover most cases:

– Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
– Never use a long word where a short one will do.
– If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
– Never use the passive where you can use the active.
– Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
– Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.”

I shall be waiting at the bar in the Moon Under Water this evening with two pints poured ready.