Musings, Writing

What it’s like to live in the real Downton Abbey

More than 30,000 tourists walked past my kitchen window in 2019.  Downton Abbey was filmed in Bampton and the library did duty as the Cottage Hospital.  Our cottage – perhaps ten yards over the narrow lane from the library – featured too, although only in passing.

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You never know who’s peering in at you.

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Musings, Writing

Let the passengers take the strain.

I should have realised that attempting to use a train to travel anywhere more complicated than London was a mistake.

Oh yes, it’s an adventure alright.

We booked tickets to go to Cornwall this weekend. All peachy – only a small second mortgage required. Now we discover (because we checked – not because anyone thought to tell us) that the train times have changed.

Even better – there aren’t any trains for much of the journey. Instead, there are buses. And there are few things that strike more fear into the heart than the words ‘rail replacement bus’.

Not only that, but there are actually no trains at all at the station we need to get back to on Sunday. Continue reading

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Watches, Writing

When a watch tells more than the time

Watches, perhaps because they are so much more personal than almost any other artefact, have a knack of telling stories that bring the past vividly into the present. Here’s one of them…

In the gathering darkness of the evening of September 28th 1944, a group of 12 German Kampfschwimmer (military frogmen) slipped into the Waal river in Holland and began swimming silently towards the road and rail bridges at Nijmegen.

Bridge at Nijmegen

Arnhem bridge. Photo credit: Fellows Auctions

Their intention? To lay explosive charges under the main supports of the bridges – key strategic objectives on the way to Arnhem – and deny their use to the allied forces. Continue reading

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Musings, Writing

The irony – presenting school prizes

As well as the day job and a bit of scribbling about watches, I work with the splendid Speakers for Schools organisation.  In February ’17, John Marston, the headteacher at St. Birinus school in Didcot invited me to speak to some of his students.  I talked to them about how important it is to fail intelligently.  In October John asked me back to present the prizes and school colours – and give a speech – at the school awards evening.

The irony was far from lost on me.  I was a sod at school.  Not an endearing, cheeky chappie type sod but a nasty, difficult little sod.  My teachers would have been very glad Continue reading

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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 on the screen that’s significant, not the watch.

GshockWhy?

On 10 December last year, just before 10am, I was away with the fairies as surgeon Mr Tristan Barton, quite literally, screwed my leg back together after I’d bust it in three places. I’d rather stupidly fallen down some concrete steps near the Continue reading

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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 Continue reading

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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.

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Breguet’s Souscription No. 580 from 1800. Image from http://www.artcurial.com

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.

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Musings, Writing

Being Santa.

December 18th. Nick Whitelock sat at his desk by the window and looked out as the cold, winter rain tracked its way down the pane. “Sleet, more like.” he thought to himself. He was, as usual, the last one in the office. The rest of them would be in the Arms by now, backs to the log fire and pints in hand, an anticipatory celebration of the Christmas holidays.

He looked down as his phone buzzed.

“Nick Whitelock.” That was it. No greeting, no fuss. That was Nick.

“Nick – it’s Sarah from Field Cottage. Can’t talk long – but I’ve been let down and I’ve tried everyone else. Can you be village Santa for the switch-on tonight?”

Ashleigh was only a small village, two-and-a-half-thousand souls, but it had it’s own little supermarket, a proper butcher, a post office and, Continue reading

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Writing

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”

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Writing

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-at-his-typewriter

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.

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