In the Face of Adversity

So I was casting around for a theme or topic for my next blog – by which of course I mean I was sifting through the rich mixture of memories, experiences and exciting radical views that run through my fecund mind (alarmed at word fecund but it says richly fertile, so  that’s exactly right) when I had an idea.

Make a note of it, son. Write it down in your little book. It will be gone in a flash. Hurry.

During my many blogged treatises on the pleasures and occasional disadvantages of life during relatively advanced years, the sole selfless purpose of which is to help you young boys and girls under 60 to avoid making the same mistakes that I have, I have occasionally touched on issues of health with examples of the odd illness or injury bravely borne. It is by suffering that human beings become angels, wrote Victor Hugo whose blogs always had the edge on mine so who am I to argue with that?

Well, on Monday last week I stubbed my big toe. Oh, yes, you may scoff and sneer and ridicule. It was a big stub of a big toe on a big stone step and I was barefoot. This summer I have mostly been dispensing with footwear, including socks, around the house. I ran through my complete range of oaths and obscenities  gathered assiduously in newsrooms, magazine offices and packed press pubs over the decades and as I recovered was grateful that Zola is a small cat, not a perceptive parrot like my Great Uncle Davey brought my Grandmother home from the Navy.

Within the hour the toe was blue, then black and when my delighted wife, a former ward sister at a London hospital so not easily impressed, had painted it a few times with arnica the deep purples and magentas, enlarged by the swollen toe which was now rudely pushing the next one out of the way to its scarlet annoyance, were spectacular. She surveyed it with artistic pride and observed on a number of occasions in the next 24 hours that the bruising was coming out beautifully. I said I was glad it was giving her pleasure.

After several days of stoical suffering I eased a shoe painfully over the throbbing toe and went to do some emergency shopping. It is fair to admit that my wife had already done some of this, but her idea of emergency shopping and mine are not absolutely identical, although she had included a  bottle of Jack Daniels which glistened and glowed in the evening sunshine on my bedside table.  My heroic excursion took a heavy toll on my battered toe and when I removed the shoe I cried out in horror at the swollen, pulsating monster that lay on the end of my right foot.

‘That bang you gave it has brought your gout back,’ said my wife, without a great deal of compassion I thought, considering the years she spent running wards full of suffering patients. And she took the bottle of Jack Daniels away with her. And a  few other bottles beside.

I surveyed the toe thoughtfully. It did bear some resemblance to the gouty left big toe I had suffered briefly many years ago. The rapidly spreading, swollen area was just like the one I then Googled on my tablet. Talking of tablets, I have been on Allopurinol ever since the first attack and the condition has never recurred. I explained carefully to my friends that it had nothing to do with my very light consumption – compared with my earlier working days, that is – of alcohol, but was due to purine which left excessive uric acid crystals  in the joints. ‘Peas, ’I observed patiently, ‘are apparently very high in purine, as is bacon or lobster. My doctor assured me that many sufferers are, in fact, teetotal.’

Much mirth followed. They all went off to the pub, advising me to steer clear of bacon, lobster and peas. My staff never respected me. I thought I had better keep clear of alcohol, just to be safe, and followed a reasonable diet list. This, and the daily Allopurinol, kept the gout totally at bay for the next decade or so and enabled me to drink again, with my usual sensible moderation. (You what?)

And so my gout became history  – until last week. I spent the weekend surveying the toe suspiciously as it stuck out of the end of the bed and was capable only of hopping to the bathroom occasionally. Was it broken? It looked and felt like it.  Or was it gout? Was it both? It was partly the pain and partly the mental agony of wondering whether in the hour of my heroically borne suffering I was going on the wagon UNNECESSARILY!

The doctor surveyed it for a minute or two and after some very painful light prodding and pinching asked me whether it felt like pain from the trauma of the impact or returned gout. Both, I said. He said an X-ray was sensible – they sent the results back swiftly, he assured me –  dispatched me to the radiology department of the local hospital where they asked me the same question. Both, I said. They took some charming portraits of it, full-face and in both profiles. ‘Is it broken?’ I asked.

 ‘We’ll let your doctor know,’they said. ‘In twelve to fourteen days!’

Well. I mean, well. So is it badly broken? Is it bruised? Is it gout? The nation waits with bated breath and no bulletins can be issued to calm it down. Two weeks! Imagine Chelsea Football Club telling the press to come back In a fortnight to see if a star player  had tragically broken his toe! Meanwhile I have to stay off all drinky doodles – I do beg your pardon, alcohol.  Deprivation  deadens the mind – for two more sun-soaked  sodding weeks, just in case it is gout. Such an experience could break weaker men, but I shall struggle on manfully without complaint.

I just looked up the old anti-gout diet sheet. It is far, far worse than I had feared. The banned list includes cod. And ‘chipped potatoes’. That’s fish and chips! The basis  of daily life. It probably includes cheese scones, too, but I am going to set it aside for now and prepare salad (No bleeding tomatoes, it says!). No chicken?  I will just sit here and plan my menu for this evening. After all, it is now past six so drinks time is upon me and I can  pass the next two hours planning  my food with a refreshing glass  or three of water.

 

Somewhere Over the Rainbow

A stunning autumn rainbow over the Yorkshire Dales in Grassington

I noticed the other day when the one and only Billy Connolly reached the landmark of his 75th birthday that he was rightly celebrated by much trending on Twitter. The trend increased in intensity and continued through the day, the vast majority expressing not so much jolly birthday greetings as gasps of huge relief that The Big Yin, who has had health challenges to deal with in recent years, had not been taken from us. There is always similar panic as the great Sir David Attenborough trends while advancing through his nineties. Now if these two giants were to go on past greater milestones one day, no-one would be more delighted than I – although I regret I would probably have to attend their celebrations in a decorative urn or small casket.

The only comfort one can take when we lose people who have conveyed so much pleasure and illuminated our lives, is that their marvellous work can continue on DVD, online and on the printed page so that we never lose them entirely. Father Ted remains one of my great joys in life 21 years after Dermot Morgan was taken from us so early, but the point is…

Oh no! Those four words again. Every time I type them, I know I have forgotten what the point was. Luckily this time I have grabbed them again before they hit the floor in pieces, unlike the chunky tumbler of Jack Daniels that slipped through my greedy but feeble grasp not 24 hours ago. The point is: however brilliantly technology can keep our heroes’ work alive for us, we are horribly aware that the world is not such a good place once they are no longer here in person.

Not many of us can claim that. Every time a long gap appears between my blogs here, it may cross the minds of the dwindling group of my friends that I have departed to enjoy The Great Afternoon Nap in the Sky. I passed this thought on to one who has just interrupted this paragraph by noisily bursting in on Skype.

“Well, hardly!” he said, “since you litter our Twitter (he talks like that) timelines by boring on every twenty minutes about Chelsea winning the title or Donald Trump’s latest lunacies, which are never anything to do with you anyway, we are all too aware of your continued existence. Only if Chelsea had beaten my fine Arsenal boys in the Cup Final last week and you had then been silent on Twitter, would I have brushed my darker suit down and looked for a sombre tie.”

But, in fact ever since that woeful game, he has shown a touching desire to reach out to me and ask tenderly after my health, using every form of contact at his disposal, finally catching me on Skype in mid-blog. I was very fortunate indeed that, like many thousands of Gooners, he had been expecting defeat and the eventual departure of Arsene Wenger, their lugubrious manager who has not managed a league title for so many years. I had only to ask how he felt about Wenger’s new contract to see his brow darkening on the screen here. His triumph had been  tarnished.

“I saw Wenger’s name trending today, I feared misfortune might have overtaken the dear old fellow,” I said. “But then I saw it was just the good news that you were keeping him on. We share your delight.”

The Skype seemed to fail at that point.

People tweeted at the end of last year that it had been an appalling one for losing familiar faces (let alone acquiring unwelcome leaders), but 2017 is continuing in the same vein. That’s life – or, rather, death. So I accept that my blog pauses cause no alarm at all anywhere. Mortality is one of the aspects of advancing years which I have not dwelt on here in the last year. There are more pressing considerations every day for those of us on the final furlong. We discuss them in the village bakery, on Skype, on the 10.11 from Robertsbridge to Charing Cross – first service of the day when you can use your Senior Railcard – and with the man who delivers the supermarket stuff. Well, we don’t discuss all of them since most of these conversations are not actually of great potential debating significance. They last about 45 seconds and generally concern the weather. To be perfectly honest, that is pretty well the sum total of what we talk about. Well, what is of more pressing consideration than that?

After all, it even governs what clothes I will be wearing – the thin woolly or the thick one –  whether I can fit an energetic walk into my crowded schedule, whether I should feel guilty at letting my wife mow the lawns. Even the cat, generally confused and depressed by endless changes in the weather – showers must indeed be irritating when cold wet grass rubs up against your undercarriage – laughed at that reference to my crowded schedule. She sits beside me, morosely looking out of the window, but I know very well she reads this. I caught her sniggering just then.

That April in May weather gave us all a point of discussion, however brief. “Pain in the arse, mate. Never know where you flipping are,” said the parcel courier one morning, only he didn’t say flipping and was, I thought, a little loose with his epithets. For all he knows I could be a retired man of the cloth, although as I have observed here before, the clerical collar would not have suited me. Meanwhile, I had to decide daily whether the weather, sorry about that, meant I can substitute a bonus nap for the energetic walk I had planned.

If unhelpful members of the household cried out to tell me the rain had stopped and luckily I could rise and go for the walk after all, I could enjoy the daily rainbow arcing the hills round the Rother Valley here, but the sheep and lambs steam creepily in the sudden sunshine after showers, as indeed do I, and the once springy turf is soggy. Still, the man coming up the lane towards me that morning was able to get in his “More like April than May!” before I had to say it, which was a relief. I only had to bark a short laugh of rural knowing agreement.

These weather comments are always kept hotly topical, you understand. Why, now showery weather has given way this first June week to long hot sunny days at last, those of us in the the prescriptions queue in the village chemist’s effortlessly changed our tune and we were all remarking that we hadn’t had a drop of rain for five days and couldn’t the garden do with it?

I feel a tad deceitful in taking part in these exchanges since my wife does all the gardening and the local sage in the check cap and green wellies is clearly a horny handed son of the soil and, until he collects his new prescription, sounds remarkably like the old Fast Show’s hoarse countryman Bob Fleming. This guilt was finally expunged last weekend when, walking bravely back up the hill, I glanced over his fence at the house on the corner and the lazy blighter was reading the paper on the patio while his perspiring and delicate looking wife was battling with the weeds in their rose garden! She wore boots. He wore slippers. Honestly…

Oh Lord, it is another glorious evening out there now. Warm and sunny. Is the 7pm drink to be replaced by a unique pre-dinner walk? The sodding sky is lyrically clear and blue. Off for my shoes then. This will startle the sheep. More matters of importance next week – ish.

010816-suffolk-sheep-cRex

How It All Began

 

I am well aware that as some writers reach their dotage and start playing splashy little games of football with the garlic croutons in their chicken soup, they tend to cast desperately around for creative ideas among the detritus of their careers in odd drawers and files.

Naturally I would never stoop to such depths, but there must be many among you who wonder how someone so pure in mind and spirit could have entered journalism. Thank you for asking. By a happy chance this enables me to dig deep into my website  for thoughts based on my piece in a book School Ties produced by brave survivors from the old Stalag  Luft.

When I left school many years ago, the concept of a gap year resting in the sun between odd bouts of casual light employment was yet to come.  I felt such an arrangement would have suited me admirably and I would have been a willing pioneer. However, those of us who are ahead of our time do not always reap our true rewards. National Service had not quite died and there seemed a very unwelcome consensus around me that a couple of years of that would do me the power of good before I went on to university. As I considered this dubious proposition, sure enough there came an even more unwelcome summons to attend an army medical in Oxford.

With the chortling words of the Headmaster, Dr W.R.V. Long, never one of my keenest admirers, ringing in my ears – “Don’t suppose for a moment that any mysterious medical condition will get you off National Service, Cooper!” – I stripped and coughed my way through a cold grey morning with the others and was told to attend another medical a few weeks later. I was encouraged on arrival at this one to find it was merely a series of eye tests.  I knew it had gone well when they found I was slightly colour blind. A green (I think) postcard arrived in Christmas week, more welcome than any festive present. “Yes!” I cried triumphantly, punching the air. “I’m C3!”

This news, I soon learned, caused Dr Long considerable distress. But if I was surplus to the army’s requirements, I certainly was not included in my patient family’s plans. My parents were pursuing a sudden and startling determination to retire to their roots on a mountainside overlooking the sea in Snowdonia. My sister had long gone on to become the first female editor of Cherwell, the Oxford University newspaper, and was by now on the Sunday Times, working for Ian Fleming’s Atticus page. I liked the sound of her life and decided journalism had better call me, too, or perhaps I should call journalism. I had edited the school magazine for three years. I had been splendidly taught English Literature by Harry Todd, fierce hurler of wooden-backed blackboard dusters, but a wonderfully passionate teacher, who had written me a most unexpected and fond farewell note of hearty encouragement.

And, as I told the personnel director of Kemsley Newspapers in London a few weeks later, writing was what I did best.  (It was, in fact, all I could do.)  He read through the few pieces I had brought with me, together with the note from Harry Todd, sniffed suspiciously, but made a rapid series of phone calls and arranged for me to go to Cardiff the following day. The home of the morning Western Mail and the evening South Wales Echo and a breezy Sunday paper, the Empire News, had long been recognised as one of the best training grounds for Fleet Street. It had produced a host of legendary editors – well, the Cudlipp brothers anyway.

I caught the train to South Wales the next day in a state of some alarm and in my Sixth Form blazer still bearing sports colours and prefect’s badge. I did not, we suddenly discovered, own a suit, having spent most of the months since I left school teaching myself shorthand in pyjamas and diligently keeping the fridge tidy by eating its contents throughout the day. I changed into a maroon (I think) tracksuit for this activity as it was pretty exhausting and spilt ketchup looked unattractive on pale candy-striped pyjamas.

The South Wales Echo editor, Jack Wiggins, was a stern, white haired old cove who was clearly sick of having hopeful young English applicants dumped on him from head office in London, but he wearily read my pieces and the magical Todd letter and asked what I had been doing with myself in the months since I had left school. I told him that I had been teaching myself shorthand. This seemed to impress him. He said he had done the same on leaving school with dreams of being a journalist. I must have suddenly seemed different from all the elegant and languid Oxbridge sons of writers, politicians and actors sent down to him from London. He threw me a pad and pencil, seized the first lunchtime edition of the Echo, wet from the roaring presses downstairs, and rattled off the front page lead story. My shorthand was left far behind but I battled on gamely.

“Right, Mr Cropper,” he said genially. “You go next door and transcribe that at my secretary’s desk while I’m at lunch.”

It was hopeless. I managed the first two or three paragraphs and was staring in silent misery at my illegible shorthand when his secretary returned. She was stunningly beautiful. She seemed to understand the situation. “Perhaps I can get you going again,” she said, looking at my pad. “Oh no, sorry, I do Pitman’s.”

“So do I,” I said miserably.

“Oh dear,” she said. “You do have a problem. I have to pop out again for  a few minutes. You might like to glance through this till the editor gets back.”

And she winked as she tossed down that first edition of the Echo on the desk…

When the Editor came back 20 minutes later he read through my typed transcript in impressed silence and rang for the News Editor, a short, red-faced, angry-looking man in his sixties called Walter Grossey, a legendary figure in provincial journalism, whom I came to fear and love.

“This is Mr Chipper, Walter,” said the editor. “He is rather different from our usual applicants. He left school four months ago – you will observe he rather curiously still wears the blazer – and has already taught himself remarkable shorthand.”

“Hardly remarkable, sir,” I said modestly. “I struggled with one or two words.”

“So remarkable,” said the editor, “that within less than an hour Mr Crapper here had transcribed all 12 paragraphs of the front page lead, even though I only read him the first six and the last two!”

“Well,” said the news editor, looking at me thoughtfully. “Unscrupulous and yet enterprising;  sly but resourceful. He shall start on Monday.”

And, to my great alarm, I did. They found me lodgings and 48 hours later I was back in Cardiff on a Sunday night, watching a black and white What’s My Line over high tea with six commercial travellers presided over by my first terrifying Welsh landlady, Mrs Griffiths who stuck instructions in Indian ink on little white cards all over the boarding house (“Do NOT return chamber pots under the beds after use as steam rusts the bed springs…”). And four years later, I left, clutching a cuttings book of sorts,  but  also the annual NCTJ Parkin Prize as allegedly the best trainee journalist in the United Kingdom, a decision, I have to say, which was greeted with hoots of amused incredulity by my contemporaries, as it still is by the few survivors  – on a good day when they can recall it.

I spent the money on a gap year…  In the years that followed, as I have told here earlier, I covered my first football match for the Guardian as a freelance, met Katherine Hepburn, discussed Chelsea’s fortunes regularly in studios and on locations with Richard Attenborough, whose friends never actually called him Dickie, and the Observer said the first of six admittedly very lightweight thrillers was “spare, deft and rather fetching.”

I eventually became an editor myself for more than 20 years and always particularly enjoyed interviewing job applicants. I hope dear old Toddy would have enjoyed the results of his teaching and his invaluable unsolicited testimonial, but I wonder what Dr Long would have made of it all.

 

 

I Have a Serious Announcement to Make

Having dispensed over many months all the sage advice I could muster on preparing for life in the twilight years and enduring them with the minimum discomfort, and having passed on a thousand anecdotes of earlier decades and the lessons I have not learned from them, I am setting aside my blogging tools and the last deadline of a long, deadline-haunted life.

I appear during the autumn of  my life – oh, have it your own way then, midwinter – to have given up suits, ties, trainers, beer, Cornish pasties, pork pies and indeed all pastry, popular music, chocolate, swimming in the sea, sunbathing, sniggering, snorting, sugar, eclairs, doughnuts, meringues, midnight feasts, long e-mails, sporting endeavours of any kind however pedestrian, shouting at the television, Question Time, long motorway journeys, flying, fried bread, cucumber, butter, absent-mindedly gnawing large blocks of strong Cheddar cheese, journalism and any related work, Jeremy Corbyn, teasing the cat, jeering at North London football fans, Sky Television, Talksport, brief underpants, long-sleeved shirts, tennis of both the table and lawn variety, laughing at elderly joggers turning puce at the steep bit up to the railway crossing, Ricky Gervais (never that keen to begin with), pickled onions (ditto), writing that last thriller, writing rude messages with my finger on dusty SUVs in car parks, Valentine’s cards, armchair dining, ironing, and a second scotch before dinner.

None of these noble relinquishments has meant sacrifice or pain, but it cannot be denied that life is neither exciting and racy, nor cool and casual as the final years approach, and certainly not full of the stuff that makes for entertaining and instructive blogs.  I have retained some of my finer qualities, accomplishments and delights, of course.  I have, for example, never come across a louder sneezer anywhere in the world. My sneeze is slow and silent to muster, but then extraordinarily loud, all the more startlingly effective because there has been no audible build up. As the years passed my massive shout of relief at the climax of the sneeze doubled the volume.

To conclude with one climactic childhood story, it was a source of particular annoyance to Harry Todd, our splendidly irascible English teacher who broke the chalk in his hand the first time he was interrupted at the blackboard by a tour de force eruption. He demanded to know who the offender was and 29 disloyal little classmates turned as one and pointed at me in my not quite hidden desk at the back. ‘Do that again in one of my classes and you will live to regret it, or you might not live at all,’ he said grimly.

He did not use the blackboard a great deal, preferring to face his flock as he shared the lyrical qualities and beauty of the writer we were discussing. However on one occasion, some weeks later, anxious to stress the sumptuous sensuality of  Keats’ descriptions in The Eve of St Agnes he turned back to the blackboard once more to write in his large, looping hand as he spoke.

‘Loosens her fragrant bodice by degrees, Her rich attire creeps rustling to her knees,’ he intoned lasciviously, the chalk trembling in his hand.

The sneeze was not planned. It was completely involuntary, may even have been a subconscious expression of  excitement at the lady’s loosened bodice and attire rustling to her knees, but I can see that, coming again just as he was writing at the board, it might well have seemed deliberately timed. Without even turning to face us, he sent the hard, wooden-backed blackboard duster skimming across the classroom towards that back right-hand corner desk where I habitually lurked. It travelled like a discus, today we would have said more like a guided missile, skimming over the heads of the boys in front and then dipping wickedly to whistle past my right ear and crash resoundingly into the back wall of the classroom.

They were still talking excitedly about it on the bus home that night. ‘He never turned to look. It was like radar control!’  jabbered one particularly odious would-be bully boy called Wilkinson. ‘Cooper went white!’  he informed members of other classes on the top deck. ‘White as chalk! He thought he’d lost his ear!’

‘No, I didn’t,’ I said wearily. ‘He missed by a millimetre. He knew what he was doing.’  I deeply admired Toddy for his passionate teaching and now for his brilliance with the wooden-backed board duster.

They wouldn’t have it, though.  Tiresome and repetitive chanting followed for the rest of the journey.  I did not defend my honour physically. Wilkinson was large. I got off at my stop with dignity and from the middle of the road made a massively expansive and very rude sign at the disappearing bus with jeering, grinning faces at the back window, to the considerable distress and disapproval of my mother who was crossing the road on her bicycle from the corner stores.

A term passed. In my enjoyment of Toddy’s teaching of my favourite subject, I forebore to sneeze –  in his lessons anyway. In fact, in one, when we were enjoying Antony and Cleopatra and  Enobarbus’s description of the Queen of Egypt on the water I actually moved halfway up the classroom to a vacant desk for a closer and more intense experience as he recited and wrote on the board.

‘Purple the sails and so perfumed that the winds were lovesick with them,’ Toddy intoned. Wilkinson had already triumphantly sidled into my vacated distant corner desk which he had always coveted.  I seized the opportunity and let fly with a shouting sneeze like the fool Trump’s Mother of All Bombs. It rocked the walls of the classroom. Toddy’s missile flew unerringly on a half turn over the shoulder, ripped through the air on its familiar diagonal course and took the usurper Wilkinson, being taller than I, squarely on the tie knot.  Terrified, he burst into tears. I closed my eyes and rocked gently to and fro in silent ecstasy, wondering if the world could ever be the same again. I opened my eyes to see Toddy’s gleaming black ones narrowed upon mine. There was no retribution.

I put the sneeze away thereafter, but never lost the skill or remarkable volume. Decades later when we lived in a semi-detached cottage in the Weald of Kent, it would return late at night, waking not only my wife, but both the children in their bedrooms, and indeed interrupting our passionate, newly-wed next-door neighbours whose ‘Bless you!’ response through the thick, solidly-built Victorian walls was, I think, amused in tone the first time. I was never quite sure on the many later occasions.

So I have not given up the high volume sneezing as it has given me much simple pleasure over the years. And the more I think about the others, from the pork pies to the doughnuts, from the jeering at Spurs’  fans and  gloomy Gooners to shouting at the television, the more I realise I was a little rash to renounce so many deep pleasures. More on that in the next blog…

 

The Man Who Means Easter to Me

fulham

First quarter of the year gone and this once weekly blog now seems to have gone monthly – not that I am anticipating too many complaints on that score. The seasons pass, lambs leap all over East Sussex, tulips burst gaudily open and the 12.14 for Charing Cross lurches past the window into Robertsbridge station, lumbering cautiously in the wake of the endlessly clattering 12.10 up-goods from the gypsum mine siding a mile or so away at Mountfield.

This is one of two freight trains on the line, the other being the one pulling the empty trucks back to the mine at night and shaking my bedhead most invigoratingly. They dug for coal in these parts in the 17th Century and were startled to find instead large deposits of gypsum (calcium sulphate) which, as any fule kno, is used to make plaster, plaster of paris, plasterboard and cement, it says here, rather repetitively. The mine lies deep in Limekiln Woods, well out of sight and feeds the trains which rattle me and my mattress or armchair, if not the cat any more. The early miners would presumably have gone home to tin baths at teatime with startlingly white faces which must have been a curious and complete contrast for families who had arrived from distant coalfields for work.

So  the up-goods hurtles past with its loads of gypsum, ignored by the now cool cat who was terrified by it as a kitten but now sits hopefully under the bird table as spring-happy sparrows trill and troll derisively from the tree beyond. Life goes on. Palm Sunday has arrived.

Easter: ah dear, yes, not what it was.  Only fish on Good Friday in the old days, chocolate eggs, even the little cream ones, not to be opened until Sunday, and above all of course (remembering that the Easter of which I write would be, in the words of Father Jack, an ecumenical matter) that truly traditional, wonderfully chaotic and long football fixture weekend. Between Good Friday and Easter Monday, mornings and afternoons, as our fathers were ordered back to their vegetable patches and allotments on six-month stretches, or up ladders with paint pots before relatives’ visits, my friends and I found it was possible to fit in no less than five top flight football matches at Chelsea, Arsenal and Fulham, where the perfect carefree Easter treat for a nerve-frayed Chelsea fan would be a game run by Johnny Haynes.

I do hope no-one is sniggering at the words top flight and Fulham occurring in the same sentence. Despite long spells in the old Second Division, in the days when King John ruled Craven Cottage anything could and did happen. Many Chelsea fans, like my friends and I, lived and died a thousand times at Stamford Bridge, but also, on alternate weekends when an away trip might not be possible, had a deep affection for Fulham where for two decades in two divisions but in a rather more relaxing atmosphere a wonderful cavalcade of colourful characters entertained magnificently, win or lose.

Those Fulham sides merge into each other in the old shudderer’s memories. There was the polished, speedy right back George Cohen, England World Cup winner and national treasure, bursting on down the touchline and, probably rightly, ignoring the demands for a return pass from endlessly beard-wagging, lantern-jawed jabbering Jimmy Hill (‘Oy ve! Georgie Cohen, do as the Rabbi tells you!’ pleaded the bearded prophet’s principal supporter who was also bearded). At left back for some years there was another much-loved England international, the spectacularly bandy-legged, buccaneering Jimmy Langley.

There was the graceful, cultured, intelligent no 8, Bobby Robson who would come to be so loved by fans of Ipswich, Newcastle and England, with his own statue to prove it, and a succession of centre forwards, from the wonderfully named Bedford Jezzard (none of your Waynes and Garys then) to the golden-haired Maurice Cook, who once ran on the pitch from the Cottage corner with such leaping, bounding, high-stepping energy, oil gleaming glossily on his sculptured thighs, that he fell in a bundle, a muscle pulled, to be stretchered away from the warmly applauding crowd before the game had even started, waving bravely to his admirers. The man next to me, who always called him Maureece with a French touch, laughed so much that his other neighbour had to lend him his explosive asthma spray to calm him down.

There was dear, bald, reliable no 6 Eddie Lowe, and temperamental raiding wingers, from Charlie ‘Bogota Bandit’ Mitten and the great goalscoring Graham Leggat to the mad Maverick Tosh Chamberlain, a steady, reliable goalkeeper in Ian Black and then a lithe, spectacular one in Tony Macedo who sounded as Italian Serie A as  the great Gianluigi ‘Gigi’ Buffon, but who came slightly disappointingly from Gibraltar.

There was another finely coiffeured blond in centre half Bobby Keech whose energetic tacking may on occasions have lacked refinement and indeed could border on brutal, but who was also something of an artistic entrepreneur, to be seen on midweek lunchtime occasions immaculately and trendily attired in the finest three-piece Italian suits at the Tate and other notable art galleries and centres of culture, generally spectacularly accompanied. There was the 17-year-old prodigy Alan Mullery who would go on to lead Spurs to European success and whose goal would almost take England to another World Cup final in Mexico.

But above all, there was the no 10,  Johnny  Haynes, whom I first saw from that famous pram of mine as a tiny lad running an England Schoolboys team at Wembley with much the same authority as in his final greying days at Fulham. No better passer of the heavy, mud-soaked leather ball, he was the finest player of his generation, the first £100 a week footballer (The Rabbi was chairman of the players’ union which was useful), a demanding, absolute perfectionist, head in hands, or hands on hips, disbelieving, despairing, heartbroken at his misfortune in having to play with such lesser mortals as another unerring through ball was wasted, or a quick return ignored. As England captain, feeding the likes of Jimmy Greaves and Bobby Smith and scoring fine goals himself he would know more triumphant days.  He was also the Brylcream Boy of his generation, succeeding Denis Compton. In the silly summer seasons there would be talk of amazing transfer deals to Italy in the pipeline, but The Maestro would surely never leave Fulham.

Awful injuries in a car accident wrecked his later career. He never played for England again and missed the World Cup winning glory. Alan Mullery, who signed for Fulham as a young lad to play with Haynes, and the great Pele both said he was the finest passer of the ball they ever saw. George Cohen marvelled at the ‘sheer perfection of his skill’. ‘He could give you goosebumps on a wet night in a match that didn’t matter,’ he said.

Bobby Moore said he had loved him as a player and later when he came to Fulham he loved him as a man. So did the fans and the club. They built a statue to him and named the main stand after him. As Chelsea fans, we respected him as England captain, maker and scorer of great goals for his club and country. Fans were fairer then, but nationally he never really received his full due.

In later years legends of the game would make Craven Cottage one of their last playing fields, from the peerless Bobby Moore to Georgie Best to the now returning and greying Alan Mullery. Chairmen also came and went from another of the lantern-jawed brigade, Tommy ‘You Lucky People’ Trinder, first host of ITV’s Sunday Night at the London Palladium, to the extraordinary Mohamed Al-Fayed who knew as much about football as he did about marbles, but somehow managed to entice Michael Jackson along to a game, later, even more oddly, erecting a statue to him outside the ground. The fans were not delighted by this statue. Embarrassment did not cover it.

Showbiz celebs still bowled up from time to time, but the magic was gone, even though David Diddy Hamilton did his best on the PA.  Mohamed certainly knew more about Harrods than he did about the great Johnny Haynes, who, again rather improbably – he once led England to a glorious 9-3 win over Scotland at Wembley – retired to anonymity in  Edinburgh of all places, where he died after a stroke while driving, in his seventies. His organs were donated, of course.

Going to Chelsea games was a tense, nervous affair (unlike Fulham, we generally avoided relegation, but toyed with it tremulously from time to time), being hustled, feet barely touching the ground, from Walham Green, later Fulham Broadway, Tube station in an advancing, shuffling army of 50,000, anxious to pick decent standing spots on the packed terraces.

A trip to Fulham’s Craven Cottage just across the borough, was a very different, strolling affair for the young boulevardier. For a start, one alighted, with elbow room to spare, at Putney Bridge, undoubtedly a more salubrious stopping off point, and then drifted along beside the river to Bishop’s Park where my Fulham-born parents had been trundled in perambulators many years earlier. The more discerning fan might pause perhaps to admire the sylvan scene, marvel at the scent and colour of the blossom, at the Easter daffodils and tulips, lob a Percy Dalton roasted peanut to a graceful but unappreciative swan, take in the lazy riverside scene again and then drift on slowly into the ground.

Around Easter when the wicked wind that whipped off the water all winter had eased into a gentle zephyr I generally stood near the back on the halfway line with the breeze from the river now caressing my ears lovingly. I remember one wonderful Easter afternoon when the tide was just right for a Saturday afternoon and 10,000 of us on that terrace  simultaneously turned our backs on the match entirely to watch the Oxford  and Cambridge eights glide past in the Boat Race. Cries of ‘Come On You Blues!’ came from other Chelsea renegades. As the crews receded in the general direction of Mortlake, there was time to enjoy the usual flotilla of ancient, peak-capped Old Blues in their following launches which set the tide slapping against the bottom of the bank, before we all turned round reluctantly to watch the game again (‘Oi Georgie! Georgie! What’s the score? We missed anything?’)

I was not a total barbarian. It was possible to admire Johnny Haynes’ brilliant ball distribution and the amazing sight of Chelsea’s once dearly beloved no 9 Roy Bentley now in a no 5 shirt for Fulham, in the same Easter week as enjoying The Messiah, the great Bach St Matthew Passion and Mahler’s Resurrection 2nd Symphony, at assorted London music ventures, as well as thanking the Lord for an unexpected away win at Highbury.

But cantata, oratorio or symphony, sublime works of genius and worship or profound prayer of gratitude, I would have to put Johnny Haynes’s swivelling 40 yard passes into the path of harum scarum winger Tosh Chamberlain right up there with them, even if old Tosh did generally belt them over the bar and on into the general direction of the boat race crews’ destination at Mortlake as the great man sank to his knees in the centre circle and bewailed the waywardness of Tosh in particular and Mankind in general.  Rest in peace, dear, agonised old perfectionist and great Maestro. Happy Easter, everyone!

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And Here We Go Again

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This is only my third blog of 2017 on grounds of ill health, sir, and I got a doctor’s note to prove it, sir. Well, I haven’t, actually. I never had much time for them. My skills in absenteeism were finely honed over many years, some of which I have touched upon in these blogs.

You may remember, for example, my fond memories of my old PE Master Donald Duck, the one who, well into his sixties, provided the highlight of our public gym display day on the school cricket field, demonstrating his prodigious strength by lifting from a prone position on his back a wooden platform bearing the plump music master and an upright piano while both offered a pleasing selection of Chopin nocturnes and the Rákóczi March by Liszt.

I had nothing against dear old Donald’s gym classes. Indeed his opening exercise routines were so good that I use them to this day and they have made me the man I am, or would have done had I used them every morning on rising rather than every other Wednesday or Saturday. And apparatus time was entertaining, too, for Donald – his real name was Donald Luck – was also known as Mr Magoo, as despite his fine physique he could hardly see beyond the gold spectacles on the end of his nose. This meant that if one chose, one could climb to the top of the ropes and remain resting and nesting, festooned up there unseen, while others laboured below on beams and bars, rings and horses. It also, I discovered, meant that in summer one could miss the lesson altogether and read in the long grass beyond the cricket nets.

No, nothing wrong with Donald and his gym sessions. It was the showers at which I drew the line. If you were a member of the third group to use them that day, they lay beyond a revolting mash of soggy puddled boards and were by that stage freezing cold. No showers or verrucas for me, thank you very much, although I did put in the occasional appearance as my mother taught dear old Donald’s grandchildren in whom he took great pride and my complete absence might have been noticed.

Donald eventually retired and was fondly cheered on his way at the end of my fifth year. At the opening assembly of the next school year, now in the Sixth Form, I was alarmed to witness the introduction of his successor, a belligerent, bouncing Welshman with a broken nose who played centre half for Slough Town, whom he would eventually manage, poor buggers.

Being in the Sixth Form meant having a common room with poker tables, a dartboard and a record player offering Elvis’s very first hits on 78s, Heartbreak Hotel and Hound Dog. Fortunately it was too early in the day for the blue pall of cigarette smoke to have formed overhead when the new gym master strode fearlessly into this mature environment during the first morning break and promised us an exciting new world of challenging apparatus and rigorous regimes. PE would be in double-lessons for Sixth Formers, beginning with strenuous circuit training. Our weights, blood pressures and other key details would be noted at the first lesson that afternoon and we would establish indices of fitness which could then be monitored monthly as our fitness progressed astonishingly. He was very much looking forward to seeing us in action in a few hours. He begged us for any questions.

As a callow member of the First Year Sixth I sensibly made no comment on this news and slipped quietly away out of the back door, missing the afternoon’s initial fitness registration and thereafter spent Tuesday and Friday gym afternoons exploring the outer reaches of the Western Region on British Rail, for whom my father worked. In his tallboy he kept a stack of ready-signed privilege passes, known as privs. If I were going to a Chelsea match on the Saturday and he was out, I had his permission to fill in starting point and destination, travelling to home matches at quarter-fare, to which his family were entitled.

Faced with the problem of making myself invisible throughout the new regime of PE, as the terms passed I broadened the scope of these privilege passes, enjoying day trips to Oxford, Worcester, Didcot and Swindon engine sheds (this was the heyday of steam), Bristol, Cardiff, Birmingham Snow Hill, each heavily reduced – and already cheap – fare, costing only a few shillings. I slightly increased my school lunch packs on my travel days, specially if I were venturing as far west as Exeter St David’s in which case an extra egg sandwich, apple and slice of fruit cake would be needed. Extra cover stories were also needed at home after ambitious trips to Taunton, Newton Abbot or Plymouth.

And so the next three years passed pleasantly enough. I kept well away from the gym and Boy Bob, as he was known, laboured mightily and with enormous success with all the school soccer teams. Fortunately my sports were hockey and cricket, both of which he apparently regarded as effete nonsense, passing them to other masters, so we never met.

I had one close encounter after a hockey match against RAF Medmenham who, to our delight and alarm, sent a mixed team. I always played right wing, but had never before fallen instantly in love with the left back marking me, a short, but buxom blonde aircraftwoman second class whose violent language and primitive tackling only increased my admiration. I scored a goal in the final minute from what she passionately believed to be an offside position and at the final whistle she was still forcefully expressing this view with a friendly headlock when Boy Bob passed on his bicycle on his way to referee a first XI soccer game. He gazed at me, at first with some interest, and then downright bewilderment. I was wearing the maroon and gold school kit, but who could I be? “Who you staring at Bonzo?” demanded my aircraftwoman, scraping mud off her ample thigh. “I know your sort.” He pedalled hastily on.

It was during a house cricket match, in my last July, that we eventually came face to face. After a long stint of bowling I had retired to third man for a rest and a quiet cigarette. The batsman snicked a fast ball beyond me into the long grass and as I turned to fetch it I saw a passer-by neatly trap it under his foot and expertly kick it in a gentle arc into my hands. “That was neat,” I said admiringly.

“It’s you again!” said Boy Bob. “I remember you. You were playing hockey. And wrestling with some girl. Who ARE you? Did you come on late transfer? I’ve never seen you in the gym? How long have you been here?”

“Eight years,” I said proudly. “You must have noticed me. I’ve edited the school magazine for the last three. I’m a Senior Prefect. I just don’t do gym.”

“We will see about that,” he said.

“Come on, Coop, let’s have the bloody ball!” bawled the wicketkeeper.

“Coop,” said Boy Bob. “Yes, I will remember that.”

“It’s Cooper, sir,” I said politely. “I leave on Thursday.”

I met him once more, years later on a visit home from my newspaper in Cardiff. He was just walking into the Dolphin football ground of the club he now managed as I passed with a friend whom he greeted affectionately. “Michael!” he said. “I hear great things about you. You got your soccer Blue!” He turned to me politely. “Did I teach you, too?” he asked.

“After a fashion, sir,” I said.

They talked football for a few minutes until our bus arrived and then we parted. After a few yards, as we jumped on board, he suddenly danced a little jig on the pavement and spun round violently. “I do remember you!” he shouted. “The Phantom! Albert RN! The Invisible Bloody Man! Three years on the run!”

Some time later Michael said he had seen him again at a football match. “He asked after you,” he said.

“Fondly?” I said.

“Not exactly,” he said. “He asked what you were doing. I said you were a crime writer. He said yes that sounded about right.”

So, I am sorry about the long silence. I didn’t do PE and showers and I don’t blog when I’m delicate. Pass the grapes.

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Battle Against Seven Deadly Sins: Cease-fire in Sight!

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One of the consolations of old age is that in the final decades of life it becomes increasingly easy to consider renouncing the Seven Deadly Sins: pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath and sloth for those too pure in mind and body to know what they are missing. I keep a few for old time’s sake. Wrath is safe, thanks to Twitter and Trump, not to mention Johnson and Gove and the bold Brexiteers. Self-promoting flyweight floozies like Katie Hopkins, Louise Mensch and Piers Morgan are not worth even a roll of the eyes and are best simply ignored. I must save my wrath for the more dangerous dolts out there.

Sloth has haunted me from an early age. I could never summon up the energy to shake it off. Simply couldn’t be bothered. Tired even thinking about it now. Leave me alone. Besides, once you reach the last lap of life the leisured pace of the retired self-styled boulevardier is increasingly difficult to tell apart from that of the unashamed sloth.

I think I am going to renounce pride. A quick browse back through these blog entries confirms I was never a bashful soul, although heaven knows, as schoolmasters, thinking themselves witty, tediously enjoyed writing on my reports, I have always had much to be modest about. It has occurred to me that I might consider the possibility that the readers of these pieces might not be as pleased with me as I appear to be on occasions.  I attempted one weekly blog with the stern resolution not to use the personal pronoun I in 1,000 words. By the second paragraph I was being tempted by Seinfeld’s Jimmy and George third person alternative, delivered on a rising note: Roddy is getting upset! I gave up the hopeless task.

Pride and sloth took me out together. Sloth often works hand in hand with one of the guzzling ones, as is illustrated by the fact that I am at this very moment breakfasting not on toasted wholemeal with marmalade, but a  considerable quantity of cheese  – and ready-sliced cheese at that.  Neither cutlery nor plate was needed. The coffee, of course, is instant.

I feel virtuous already, having practically cast off three sins in three paragraphs. So we are left with greed, lust, envy and gluttony. How unfair to give greed and gluttony two separate entries.  Sorting out the difference between those two beautiful, bewitching babes would involve far more Googling than I could possibly summon up at this hour of the morning, You are right, of course, the time of day has nothing to do with it. Sloth is taking over again, just as it works so happily with greed, so often seen as the quest for power and possessions with a base determination far beyond my energy.  I am, in general, contented – oh, the shame of it! And that means greed and envy may go out together.

Gluttony is a different matter. It is almost entirely applied to gross over-eating. I am clinging on tightly to the word gross here. It conjures up images of the Pythons’ irresistible offer of that tiny little wafer thin mint which eventually led to the explosion of the totally gorged Mr Creosote all over the French restaurant. I have never known gluttony in that spectacular sense, but it is amazing what can be achieved in the peace of one’s home in several discreet, well spaced-out instalments. Only the empty boxes, cartons, bottles, cases will reveal the truth in the cold grey light of the following morning, and they need to go in the wheelie bin very quickly indeed before the rest of the household stirs and I am asked how many secret guests I invited round for a late night supper.

This insidious gluttony by degrees can also creep up on one if the excesses are not the most obvious ones. Chocolate bars, cream cakes and meringues or doughnuts, fried foods or burgers are no temptation at all once the surgery nurse has given you a long low-down lecture on the dangers of rising cholesterol and the horrors of diabetes. Her computer summons you on achieving the age of 65 when she clearly fears you may well kick the traces over in the heady excitement of retirement and giddily gorge yourself to an early demise. I was helped here by the fact that although the surgery records may have assumed a retirement from regular employment, I simply moved gracefully from being a full-time editor to becoming a part-time freelance journalist and I defy anyone to spot the difference in my work or general consumption of food and drink.

Ah, but those differences were there. A cheese scone here, another cheese scone there. Then the village baker, possibly sensing a challenge, practically doubled the size of the big, shapely, golden beauties. He had raised the price with the size, of course. We’re talking big money here – £1.20 a throw. I doubled him up. Fired the second barrel. Four of a kind. His basket was cleared out.  I had a clear week’s supply (it’s fish and chips on Fridays). I bailed out with cheese scones worth a cool fiver. Went home laughing in triumph. Had one with a coffee when I got home. Two more with soup for lunch. And the final one with a drink at six. Still Monday! Damn this evil addiction.

And of course one bad habit leads to another. Kick the cheese scones, and the pies and pasties are waiting. Pastry paves the path to perdition. Even puddings begin to look alluring. But I have fought my potential gluttony, week by week, Well, I have to take it a day at a time. Once a glutton, always a glutton, I fear.  No Gluttons Anonymous to help the likes of me. But always the image of the exploding Mr Creosote to keep me somehow on the straight and narrow and by some wondrous miracle, still on the same belt notch. Well, not the same belt, but the leather is not of the quality you expect from Marks. It stretches.

An uncomfortable stirring in the front row of the stalls is now detectable as we approach the one remaining sin, round which I have been nervously circling: lust. Woohoo! Lust!

Ahem, I do beg your pardon. It is not a word I confront very often these days. I am aware of course that, like greed, it is often applied to a passion for power, but more commonly to an intense sexual feeling in the body, it says here. Well, I’m not too sure about that. The teenage schoolboy or young college student is all too well aware that much of it is confined to the mind rather than the body. A chance would be a fine thing, they think bitterly as their hormones whiz and cavort and opportunity rarely knocks. And they can consider themselves lucky to be spending their lusty youth in the new Millennium. Half a century ago opportunity never knocked at all. Don’t talk to me about the Swinging Sixties.

We will cast a discreet veil over the more mature decades which followed,  thank you very much, but I can tell you no publisher is likely to come knocking at my door seeking salacious memoirs. I married just before my 40th birthday and any round golden delicious swelling that nestles in the  warm palm of my eager hand, is, as you all well know,  the crown of a cheese scone and I say no more on the subject as it seems very sultry for the time of year and I feel beads of perspiration. Besides, whereas that lusty teenager is regarded affectionately for his burgeoning passions, the more senior citizen is in grave danger of being dismissed as a dirty old man. We avert our eyes in dignity on beach, in pool and gymnasium (I am, in fact, not too familiar with the latter) and reflect on life with a sigh. Fortunately the temptations of our youth did not include online porn or dating apps, and any new technological developments have come far too late. That concludes my evidence, m’lud. Yes, I am very well aware of the penalties for perjury.

So there we are then. I apologise for the lack of steamy confessions but it has been enjoyable to share sins with you, although I have an uncomfortable feeling that the fact that I am prepared to share even half of them suggests that they are diminishing of their own accord.  I have just experienced the first example of this. My wife is a keen and accomplished gardener, which is just as well as the prospect of any horticultural activity brings on the sloth in me within seconds. But I always happily accompany her to a large and attractive garden centre at Sedlescombe on the A21 to Hastings in any season, for any purpose: seeds, bulbs, plants, bushes, trees, fertiliser, pond requisites, you name it. Well, she does.

Sometimes she demurs lest the purchases be too heavy for me to help carry – she is far younger than I – and suggests she order them online for home delivery. No, no, I say, you deserve to pick exactly what you want. We will go together. Now by a completely happy and random chance this centre has a splendid and most comfortable restaurant with a wide and imaginative lunch menu. I am not one of those irritating customers who holds up the queue cogitating over the dishes of the day blackboard. Oh, I’ll just have the cod and chips I say carelessly, no bother to anyone. For when one retires to a table in the bright and cheerful – and packed –  adjoining conservatory and awaits the arrival of the meal, it is comforting to know that when it comes the battered cod fillet will be so enormous that it will stretch from one rim of the plate to the other, that delicious crispy tail bit curving over practically on to the table. And the chips! So big! So many! And they, too, are jostling for places on the crowded plate. I’ve even taken to demolishing the pot of tartare sauce which merely irritated me as a child.

Now I suspect you may have deduced that this is not gluttony by stealth, creeping up on me by degrees, but the full-faced total thing, if not as explosive as Mr Creosote’s fate. And I confess freely that there have been occasions when, if my wife’s back is turned or she has gone for another coffee, that I have relieved her plate of a few chips too, if I sense she has had enough. But this week I began to realise that if I were going to finish off this massive piece of cod right down to that delicious, extra crispy, overhanging tail bit, I was actually going to have to download some of my chips on her plate! Reader, even then, I couldn’t finish the meal…

I left the restaurant thoughtfully.  If my Friday lunch gluttony is in decline, what next? I tell you, this growing old business is very stressful and, I have to say, at times positively chastening.

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