A Matter of Habit

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Each morning I go through my checklist: am I breathing?  Yes.  Good.  Are the paramedics, teary-eyed, looking down on me and shaking their heads?  No.  Excellent.  Am I wearing a shroud?  No.  Even better.  I check my eyes: white is good (obviously the surrounding bits and not the blue bit in the middle – finding that to be white would be most disconcerting); yellow very much not so.  Since the government started regularly monitoring the poo of people of my age, it has become something of a morbid fascination for me, so I check it (thankfully, just a passing glance into the pan remains the only requirement.  I do not need to rummage through it.  I do not, yet, have to check my underwear): too dark means I need an appointment with the doctor; too pale means that I need an appointment with a solicitor and an undertaker.  I check my teeth: all there, a miracle has occurred overnight – perhaps the tooth fairy, in straitened circumstances, is trying to get some money back; some there, the dental status quo has been maintained; none there, my wife has taken exception to me snoring again.  I take my morning tablets: this routine often involves much needed bending and stretching exercise as I scrabble around the floor in order to retrieve whatever I have dropped.  If it is a workday I will put in my contact lenses, if it is not I sidestep the need to ram my fingers into my eyes and poke myself in them with the arm of my glasses instead.

Between the pill retrieval and the contact lens insertion comes the shower – at least that’s what I tell the optician who always insists I must not wear my contacts in water as, if I didn’t wear my lenses in the shower, I wouldn’t be able to find the tap.  Showering has become more and more of a ritual as I get older.  I am reconciled to becoming an old man – I can just about cope with that.  What I can’t cope with is the possibility of becoming a smelly old man.  I don’t know whether it is possible to drown by syphonic action, but the risk is preferable to that of smelling of wee.  I am instead accompanied wherever I may go by the whiff of shower gel and shampoo.  I seldom take a bath.  It’s ok if I want to read a book, although by and large I prefer to do that dry, but I never get out feeling clean.  I’ve been laying in the water that I’ve been washing in, for goodness sake!  Surely all the muck makes its way back onto me.  And no matter what I do with myself, I always seem to be left with some extremity or other (usually a knee) protruding like a Pacific Island, just above the waterline and it always makes me feel cold.  The only way I can manage to submerge all of me – breathing apparatus excluded – is to lie flat and corpse-like below the suds and that makes my blood run cold.  Perhaps it is not quite so space-restricted, but the bath is a mite too coffin-like for me.  I’m much happier taking my ablutions in the vertical.

Breakfast is two small cups of strong black coffee – never one large, even if I am in a hurry – and porridge with sultanas, blueberries and honey (anything other than taste the oats).  I watch the news, because you just can’t beat starting the day in a state of depression, and I watch the weather, although I must admit that it is mostly to see exactly who is forecasting it.  I trust some of them, but I just know that others take pleasure in sending me out in the wrong coat.  If I am leaving the house I check that my hair does not look too unruly (it does), that my flies are zipped up, and I take a final ‘just in case’ wee, at which time I invariably forget to redo my flies.  People used to recognise me by my hair (red, long and very thick – still) but now I fear that it is my underwear.  I check my ‘state of dress’ so often these days that I am developing a callus.

When I was younger – before I had to check that I had locked the doors at least three times before I left the house – I laughed in the face of habit.  It was something that sad, old people were tethered to.  If I could write a letter to my younger self it would say “OK smart-arse, so you were right, but not bright enough to stop yourself from falling into the traps you saw everybody else falling into.” 

Oh, and I talk to myself…

A Boy Named Colin

So, can you spot the boy named Colin?

So what do you do when you wish that you were not entirely somebody else, but merely a very much better version of yourself?  Do you try to persuade yourself that, despite the evidence to the contrary, you are really not too bad as you are, or do you admit that, actually, you almost certainly are, and fret about it for a little while before reconciling yourself to your myriad shortcomings, eating chocolate and unscrewing the lid from a bottle of wine (as the kind of wine you drink is, of course, completely unfamiliar with the whole concept of cork)?

An old school friend of mine (obviously we weren’t old at the time) always wanted to change his name to that of his favourite rock star, but not, you understand, to the rock star’s rock star name, but to the actual name he was given before he adopted the obviously more glamorous alter-ego.  The desire to become the person who wasn’t actually good enough for the person you wish to be is a difficult one to reconcile.

Nominative Determination means that I was always going to be a ‘Colin’ by nature and, as disappointing as that might be, I am not sure, particularly at this stage, that changing my name would make me any more of a Brad, a George or an Idris than I am today.  Imagine being asked for your name when, for instance, checking into a hotel, only to be met with a bewildered “Are you sure?  You don’t look like a Ryan.  You have more of the ‘Colin’ about you, if I’m honest.”

In truth, changing your name cannot make you a better version of anything, just the same old dork with a different monogram.  My friend’s plan would never have worked: he would, even if he had succeeded in changing his name to Vince Furnier, still have been Paul at heart and nobody who knew him would have viewed him any differently.  (Although it might have been a different story if he, too, had changed his name to Alice.)

It really doesn’t take very long at all for a child to become its name.  How often do you look at somebody and think “You should have been called something else”?  Except in the case of politicians, not often I guess, but “I wish you were more…” or “I wish you were less…” a whole lot more often.  I am guessing that – and of course I am once again excluding politicians – most of us feel that we have got things wrong from time to time: that a better person would have done things a whole lot more effectively.  And it’s that better man, rather than the other man, that I have always wanted to be.  The problem is, there are so many to choose from.  If I was looking for a weaker man, a vainer man, a less effective man, the field would be so much smaller.  If I was looking for someone who had failed more often than me, I might well have to go inter-species.

Feeling useless – although not entirely worthless – from time to time is a general state of being for most people.  Try facing a leaking pipe with no idea where the stop tap is; try sitting in a car with no idea of why it won’t start; try helping a three year old to understand why you don’t drink from the toilet.  Most of the human race stands, at least some of the time, Cnut-like on the shore.  We are doomed to spend a lifetime attempting to turn back the tide, fighting fires without a bucket, riding the storm without a raincoat and that’s ok, it’s a species-wide experience.  Feeling inadequate is a universal sentiment, exacerbated by contact with those precious few who instinctively know exactly the right thing to do, how and when to do it.  (Imagine two billion expectant children, one sled, nine clapped-out reindeer, one day to get around the entire globe and yet one man gets the whole job done, year after year.)  They are few these people, they are so appreciated when they are needed and they are so annoying when they are not.  They are just like us, but better.  They are who we would all like to be.  They are probably called Dirk or Samantha.  They are why nobody should be called Colin…

Song of the day: ‘A Boy Named Sue’ by Johnny Cash, from the wonderful ‘Live at St Quentin’ that was part of my musical education.

Family Blog

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I was idly searching for ‘growing older’ information on Google* when I stumbled across one of my own blog posts and then a completely different blog by somebody using my name.  I was taken aback.  Am I not the only Colin McQueen on the internet?  Well no, indeed I am not.  I am, for instance, not the Colin McQueen who publishes the aforementioned ‘Family Blog’, who drives a camper van and plays classical guitar.  I am not the Colin McQueen who publishes a ‘Stratum Security Blog’ (although I could well be the only one who has no idea what that means) and I am not the Colin McQueen who is ‘a finance professional of over 25 years experience’ and therefore (obviously) attempting to flog you insurance online.  I am not the artist on Twitter and I have never published a ‘Fund Manager Fact Sheet’ although I might well do so as soon as I discover what it is.

Shaken by the knowledge that there are multiples of me out there, I decided to click on ‘Images’ in order to check out what I look like and glory be, I appear to be a dozen different people, none of whom look anything like me.

Now, part of me wants to follow the McQueen Family Blog – they look a decent bunch – particularly since I see that Colin is just a year older than me and drinks beer in the sunshine, but it feels uncomfortably like stalking, so I’ll give it a miss… just as soon as I’ve finished reading one last post.

This ‘Other Colin’ it transpires reads and reviews books, paints and, as far as I understand it, has extensive conversations with God whilst he is driving.  Not by mobile phone, I hope – I don’t wish to share my name with a law breaker!  Just for the record I should, perhaps, point out that I (for the sake of clarity, I will henceforth refer to myself as The Original Colin McQueen) am unlikely to review the books I read, not because they are unworthy of review, but because I am unworthy of reviewing them.  I have not painted properly since ‘A’ level when, if I’m honest, I still didn’t paint properly.  I scraped a pass because, I fear, nobody could actually prove that it was bad.  And finally, I do not converse with God whilst I am driving, although I do have fairly protracted conversations with myself from time to time (not to mention the occasional somewhat shorter and louder conversations with other drivers).  Please don’t get me wrong here, I most certainly am not saying that taking the opportunity to chat with the almighty whilst the tarmac whistles by is a bad thing – I’m just suggesting that ‘Other Colin’ might want to check that he is not actually in the midst of an on-going chatting with the Sat-Nav scenario.

They (who?) say that you should never Google yourself – although, to be fair, I didn’t: I Googled something I wanted to know and, Google being Google, it decided to throw one of my own blogs into the mix and, having done that, decided to throw half a dozen namesakes at me.  I suppose with a Christian name like Colin, they would all have to be the same kind of age as me – I can’t imagine that anybody has been given that name in the last 50 years – and I’m pleased to report (in my mind at least) that none of them look as young as me, nor anything like so much fun of course!

Oh, and in case you’re wondering what I Googled in order to find myself vicariously delving into the life of this fellow Colin McQueen (Blogger) well, if I’m honest, I forgot for a second the title of my own little bloggy potpourri and I typed ‘Getting On’.

It’s an age thing…

*Other search engines are available – although nobody uses them.

In Flames…

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I didn’t make it as far as GCSE Woodwork.  In fact I barely graduated from unfinished pipe rack to wonky coffee table via a book rack that refused to hold books and, for some reason best known to Mr Kerr (the woodwork teacher) a single asymmetrical skittle, before I was summarily banished from the workshop forever.  I learned the difference between dovetail joints and mortise and tenons, and most particularly that I was capable of neither.  I learned that PVA glue is stronger than the wood it joins, but that it doesn’t stop it falling apart the second the clamps are taken off.  I learned that any fool can saw a straight line – except this one.  I took woodwork lessons for the mandatory three years and I think we were all agreed that we were lucky to get through it.

Of course, my ineptitude with all things ligneous, was not the only shortcoming to be highlighted during my secondary school years.  I also discovered that my propensity for getting confused by all things scientific was almost boundless.  Physics and Chemistry challenged areas of my brain that were theretofore exclusively reserved for being useless at Maths.  By and large, Chemistry tutors were very keen on keeping me away from chemicals and Physics tutors were very much more comfortable if they managed to stop me plugging anything in.  I enjoyed Biology, but as I wasn’t prepared to cut things up, I was banished to a side room where I studied ‘Human Biology’ alone, which at least meant that nobody had to take the risk of letting me loose with a scalpel.

My boredom threshold scrapes along the floor at the best of times, and three years spent ‘studying’ Latin has left me with nothing more than amo, amas, amat and the skill of using a ‘Power Ball’ to replicate the sound of someone knocking on the classroom door.  The only thing that has really stayed with me from those interminable hours of incomprehensible babble was written inside the sleeve of my textbook by whichever unfortunate soul inherited it ahead of me.  It was written, I recall, very neatly, by a hand much more skilled in the art of fountain pen usage than my own:
‘Latin is a language as dead as dead can be.
First it killed the Romans and now it’s killing me.’

I’m uncertain of the veracity of the statement, but I certainly applaud the spirit.  I got very used to being sent from the class during those lessons – on occasions as I innocently wandered into the room – with the words ‘I can’t be bothered with you today, McQueen.  Stand outside.’  I really didn’t mind.  Staring at the wall for three quarters of an hour was very much preferable to forty five minutes of Latin conjugation.

In truth, my interest in all lessons depended almost entirely upon the teacher’s ability to engage me in some way.  My geographical knowledge reached its apogee with the difference between glacial and river valleys.  Topographically, everything – if you will excuse me – was downhill from there.

I loved ‘Creative Writing’ and also reading – as long as I was fully engaged by whatever I was given to read.  I was even ok with ‘challenging’ as long as it was not also boring.  I am completely incapable of finishing anything that has not comprehensively grabbed my attention.  Once that has wandered, I am lost, and whatever it is that it has wandered away from, will never be visited again.

My memory tells me that I somehow scraped together six ‘O’ levels, but for the life of me, I can only name five of them and I am thus uncertain whether I have overestimated my teenage academic achievements by some percentage or another, or whether my memory has completely given up the ghost, along, as it goes, with the wonky coffee table which has just come down from the attic in three pieces, all of them bound for the garden incinerator.

Once again I watch my education going up in flames…

Of all the things…

Of all the things I know, the one of which I am most certain, is just how insubstantial all the others are.  I understand (I don’t!) the Universe, but I know that I cannot influence it in any way.  The more I know about it, the less I understand – and that goes for everything in it.  I’ve bored you with this conundrum many times before, but if anyone could explain to me how something that is already infinite could possibly expand – and into what? – I would be as grateful as I would be amazed.  I cannot get over my belief that all of those who claim to know all of these things are, in fact, just making it up as they go along.  That they are aware that none of it makes any sense at all, but as long as it remains every bit as confusing as it is, the likes of me will just give into it: let it wash over them and never question.  It is unfathomable – like bitcoin – and not even whisky can bring it into focus.

Astrophysics is the learned practice of filling in the gaps in human knowledge – this being the same kind of knowledge that persuaded alchemists they could turn lead into gold, or at least sell the recipe – with utter bollocks.  They can say anything at all as long as it is confusing enough to offer no potential to be disproven.  If anyone should start to pick holes in their overarching hypotheses, they will simply point out that everything revolves around a theoretical particle which, to date, nobody has managed to identify although they know it exists and they have already given it a name.  It is called Clarence.  ‘And look, here is a telescope that is so powerful that we can see right back to the dawn of time.’  Well, no, you bloody well can’t, because the dawn of time started billions of years ago (I think) and however far you can see, it still happened billions of years ago.  Unless the Universe is a VCR tape, what I can see now is what is happening now.  ‘See that star over there?  Well what you’re seeing now is over a billion years ago.’  Well, no it isn’t, because I’m only 63 years old.  I can’t see before that, because I wasn’t born…’

And yes, I did just say only 63.  Only?  63?  Those are two words that I could never have imagined seeing side by side.  At sixty three years of age, you lose all right to be ‘only’ anything, unless it is ‘slowly falling apart’: only a few short years before you cease to be anything at all.

And then again you think, hang on, if everything is just a mass of particles well, I’m never going to stop being a mass of them am I?  Here I am, just flesh and blood, part whisky/part chocolate, but one day I will be space dust – although I definitely prefer being the former – and who knows, if I hang around for long enough, I might just make it to the dawn of time…

The Etymology of ‘Crayon’

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At my age it is important to always find new and exciting ways to waste time. 

You know what it’s like when you write: you become obsessed with words.  And so it was that I came to write down the word ‘expert’ and my mind flipped.  You see, I know that ‘ex’ means former, or occasionally formerly, and I know that ‘pert’ means attractively small and well shaped (although I can pretty much guarantee that all of my male readers now have the self-same image imprinted on the brain) and, as far as I am concerned, it suddenly makes being an expert in any field a very much less appealing proposition, because nobody wants to be ‘once-upon-a-time small and attractive’, particularly if they are about to give a lecture to a room full of students.  (Worse, if I’m honest, that I only have to think of the word to conjure up an image of Daddy Pig* – which is, to say the least, disturbing.)

Now I know, I understand, that you are all educated people and sooner or later one of you is going to point out that ‘expert’ is not, within the meaning of the act, a ‘portmanteau’ word at all.  (Intriguingly, neither is portmanteau.)  It is not the sum of two thrust-together halves like brunch, dumbfound and Velcro (velvet + crochet – no, I didn’t know that either!) but is a single unfused entity.  This is the problem with etymology – once you start to look for the origin of words, you find them – even when they are not there.

It all started a few weeks ago, on this very platform, following a fleeting mention of Viking place names, when I began to wonder what an expert in such things might be called (a Viking expert, as it disappointingly turns out) and, inevitably, I became lost in an accidental off-piste ramble.  First of all – and quite logically in my opinion – I started to wonder about the actual word ‘etymology’: where does that come from?  Well, it comes from a Greek word etumos apparently, meaning ‘truth’ – as in ‘true meaning’ – which got me precisely nowhere (a venue with which I was strangely familiar).  I wondered if the Vikings had a word for it.  I still do.  If you can find out, I would love to know.  I have spent many hours trying to persuade Google that I do not want to know the etymology of the word ‘Viking’ but rather whether the Vikings themselves had a word for ‘etymology’, to absolutely no avail.  It is not to be persuaded**.  Google has, of course, developed an Artificial Intelligence that clearly believes (and can no doubt prove) that I am beneath it.

Frustrated beyond… beyond… oh, there must be a word for it, I tried to drag my mind back onto the original subject but, let’s be honest, the journey from ‘pert’ to archaeology can be a very long one – particularly when you get to my age – so, eventually, I just gave it a blank sheet of paper and a pencil to play with, while I began to wonder about the word ‘crayon’***…

*Daddy Pig, from Peppa Pig, considers himself an expert in most things, which he feels obliged to demonstrate, usually with disastrous consequences: life imitating seriously annoying cartoon toddler fodder.
**It did, however, inform me that the word ‘Reindeer’ comes from the Viking.  So, I wondered, did the Vikings believe in Father Christmas?  Well, apparently yes: Christmas was called Yule and the old bearded man flying across the sky was Odin.  Google does not tell me whether he sat in a cardboard grotto in the middle of the supermarket for weeks before the event though, nor whether he had horns on his Santa Hat.
***Intriguingly, I Googled “what is the origin of the word ‘crayon’” only to find myself being informed that ‘vagina’ was originally the word for the sheath into which a sword was (forgive me) inserted.  Why?  I have no idea.  Perhaps Google’s AI is even more human than we thought…

New Folk Songs

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It is well over a year since I published my last ‘poem’ at which time I decided that I had bitten off more than I could ever have chewed and that I would be perfectly happy if nothing in the world ever rhymed again.  The songs that follow are definitely not poetry, but they do rhyme.  What they sound like is up to you – although one of them, at least, has a tune that you might recognise.  Be creative.  Stick your finger in your ear and sing through your nose whilst I go get the cider…

The Gardener’s Lament

Begonias, petunias and purple columbines
Hydrangeas, photinias and orange clemetines
Bulbs and rhizomes, little seeds:
Plant them down and tend their needs.
Water them to make them grow,
Keep the weeds down with a hoe.
Celebrate each little bud,
Protect the stems with splints of wood.

The snails will visit with the slugs
In numbers that will make us mugs –
We gardeners who trust to luck
The treasure we plant in the muck.
However much they’re worth you know
Invertebrates won’t let them grow:
They’ll eat your seedlings overnight.
And all your beds will look like shite.

So out we go with torch at night,
With hatred that we know will harden,
To find the buggers in the light
And throw them onto next door’s garden.

Geraniums, delphiniums and pastel phlox,
Nasturtium, and allium and pink hollyhocks
Bulbs and rhizomes, little seeds:
Plant them down and tend their needs.
Water them to make them grow,
Keep the weeds down with a hoe.
Celebrate each little bud,
Protect the stems with splints of wood.

At night the bloody cat will prowl
And dig your seeds up with a howl
That says ‘I’m going to sit right here,
On all the plants that you hold dear
And when I’m done, I’ll bury it –
This steaming little pile of shit –
Where you will find it with your nails
Upon the morn whilst picking snails.’

So out we go with water guns
To catch the bleeder while he’s napping
To drench him when he tries to run
And hope that that will stop him crapping.

But in the end, you can always tell he
Will laugh in your face when he’s shit in your wellie (Repeat x3)

The Old Rover

I bought the old Rover at the end of last year
After saving my money from whisky and beer.
I pushed in the key and I got it to start
With a sound not unlike an electrical fart.

To the end of the drive was as far as it went
Cos the engine was shot and the axle was bent,
The window fell out when I opened the door.
I put my foot down and it went through the floor.

So I went to the seller and I said ‘It’s a joke.
This car you have sold me is totally broke:
The wipers fell off when it started to rain.
The roof is a sieve and the sump is a drain.’

He laughed in my face when I gave him the key
‘If you’re wanting a refund, then don’t look at me.’
It was then that the bumper fell onto the floor
Oh I never will buy an old Rover no more.

And it’s no nay never,
No nay never no more
Will I buy an old Rover,
No never no more.

I tried to drive off, but I was stopped by the law
So I never will drive the old Rover no more.

So it’s no nay never,
No nay never no more
Will I buy an old Rover
No never no more (Repeat ad nauseum)

Fruit Song*

An apple a day keeps the doctor at bay
A banana might frighten the nurse
A ripe tangerine
Makes the Registrar green
But a kumquat will make him much worse.

A greengage or plum makes a midwife quite glum
A lychee might turn her to drink
A sweet nectarine
Might appear quite obscene
To the average sub-Freudian shrink.

Psychiatrists feel that a lime has appeal
And a pineapple can be quite cute
A lemon can ease
The desire to sneeze
Whilst the prune takes a diff-er-ent route.

There are few who can reach the allure of a peach
Whilst a raspberry’s sex on a cane
A strawberry just
Makes my mind fill with lust
And a gooseberry drives me insane.

Let’s shout hip hooray for the doctors who say
That a mango is good for your sight
There are some say a fig
Makes your manhood grow big
Well you never quite know, it just might.

Let’s shout hip hooray for the doctors who say
That a mango is good for your sight
There are some say a fig
Makes your manhood grow big
Well you never quite know, it just might.

The Scrumlops Fall

When the scrumplops fall
And the Jaspers** call
Tween galls that froth
On tinstance broth
Then I will find the limpon quay
Full snore and we at twenty three
Wherever snile will stand in grome
And litterbuss will guide us home.

Some bastard has let me bike tyres down again (Repeat x3)

*The Fruit Song was written many years ago for an ill-starred project with John Junkin and Crispin Underfelt.  I don’t think it ever had a tune.  I’m happy for you to make up your own – just don’t ask for royalties!

**I have just remembered that when I was a boy, wasps were known as jaspers.  I have no idea why…

In addition to the 52 short rhymes that made up the Zoo, you may well be able to find other bursts of cadenced prose from me by looking for ‘The Haphazardly Poetical’.  This, if you’re interested ‘An Appreciation of Poetry‘ is my favourite.


It all started with a Second World War TV docu-drama in which a gaggle of soldiers (mostly female, I noted, dressed in the kind of uniform that would today almost certainly be sold by Ann Summers) pushed wooden ships and tanks around a map of Europe using what looked like croupiers rakes, when a sudden memory of Michael Bentine’s Potty Time flashed across my mind:add a soundtrack of silly voices and dozens of mini-explosions and you were there in all the sense and purpose of war.

Thoughts of Bentine, of course, brought me onto the great Milligan.  The two of them (together with Peter Sellers and Harry Secombe) co-created the seminal radio comedy The Goon Show, but sadly quarrelled in the 1950’s reportedly after Michael Bentine attempted to have Spike removed from the show due to his ‘erratic behaviour’.  Neither, it would appear, was able to forgive and according to Spike, they did not speak again until the day before Bentine’s death by which time, I fear, it was too late for either of them to rebuild burned bridges.  The genius Milligan continued to write and star in The Goon Show until some years later when, as it was concertedly trying to kill him, he moved into TV and books, where he did ok, all things considered.

My own connection to Mr Milligan is via a gossamer thread which, not unusually for me, also suspends the indomitable Crispin Underfelt.  We were writing a radio series together at the time and, young, green and fearless as we were, we wrote to Spike to ask if he would read what we had written.  Amazingly, he replied immediately saying that he would be happy to read a script and he would comment and advise where he could.  Overjoyed we parcelled up the single episode that he requested and, with a prayer to the Gods, sent it on its way.  Alas, when the MS arrived back a few days later, clearly unread, it was accompanied by a letter from Norma Farnes (Spike’s minder, agent, manager and later, biographer) stating that Spike did not read or comment on the work of other writers, end of.  We were upset at the time by the terseness of the response, but later came to realise that Spike was having one of his difficult times mentally and Ms Farnes was doing what she always did: keeping the lid on.

It was during one such ‘difficult time’ that Spike famously threw a heavy paperweight at his then co-writer, Eric Sykes, which missed its target, smashed through the office window and crashed down onto the thankfully empty pavement five stories below.  Sykes had been drafted in to help a then ailing Milligan with Goon Show scripts for series 5 and 6 and was, in fact, the sole writer on many episodes.  (Sykes commented that he always felt that with Spike, madness was only ever an arm’s length away.)  The paperweight incident was precipitated by a disagreement over a single word – neither of them could remember which – but anybody who has ever co-written anything with anyone will understand the tension only too well*.  

Unlike the poor, benighted Messrs Bentine and Milligan, Mr Sykes (as he sometimes allowed me to call him) did occasionally have the pleasure of my company.  Our first meeting was at the back door of my father-in-law’s pub, which was directly across the road from the theatre and a regular haunt of those performing there – largely long after what was then a legally enforced ‘closing time’.  When the pub was closed at night, the back yard was tar-black, unlit, and all-in-all not the place to be, so I opened the door with some trepidation in response to the insistent knocking, to be faced by a tall man in a black homburg hat and full-length black, astrakhan-collared coat.  All I could see was the glowing tip of a cigar, the size and intensity of a fallen sun.  ‘Is Bri’sy in?’ said the voice which I immediately recognised as not being that of Hattie Jacques, in a tone not unlike a five year-old asking a friend’s mum if he could come out to play.  I ushered him in.  Brian (my father-in-law) and Eric were golf pals, playing along with Jimmy Edwards who, my father-in-law swore, had a small trolley attached to his golf bag in which he carried around a fully-stocked array of his peri-round liquid ‘fortifications’.  Eric Sykes was the antithesis of erratic: always Sykes, always amusing and always at the very epicentre of any group of which he was part, despite being almost completely deaf.  I suppose that genius always has its price…

…And then I awoke mid-reminiscence, to find myself mid-Newsnight instead, with Kirsty Wark presenting stories from Ukraine and allowing me to witness for myself the kind of monstrous harm and destruction that can be released by one unhinged man, and I couldn’t help but wonder when the croupiers rakes might come out again…

*I don’t think, incidentally, that Mr Underfelt and I actually ever ‘fell out’ over a script.  We often had different ideas, which we were prepared to argue in favour of, but ultimately we always reached a settlement with which we were both happy, nary an angry word passed between us.  Mad ideas man and embittered old hack in perfect accord…

A couple of weeks ago I lamented that, other than John Junkin, I had no names to ‘drop’, when I suddenly remembered Eric.  It doesn’t matter that nobody who remains within their first half century of life will remember either of them.  I do…

N.B. I cannot recommend highly enough, for people of a certain age, Eric Sykes’ Autobiography ‘If I Don’t Write it, Somebody Else Will’ – even though he doesn’t mention Brian – and Norma Farnes’ (who, incidentally, was also Sykes’ manager) record of her thirty year relationship with Spike, ‘An Intimate Memoir’.  Although neither of them mention me…


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I don’t want my grandchildren to grow up in my world, I want them to grow up in their own, but I would like them to remember that my world did exist: that it is (on my timescale) a bare few seconds since if your car broke down in the middle of nowhere (which still existed back then) you might well have to wait hours, if not days, before being found; that if you were running very late for an appointment you would have no opportunity to explain until you arrived in time to find that everybody else had gone home.  That if you wanted to talk to anybody at all that was not within touching distance, you would have to stand in the freezing cold hallway where the one phone in the house was tethered to the wall, counting the pennies off in your head as the conversation meandered on.

The mobile phone – now the ‘smart phone’, unless you have to rely on it – has made the biggest difference to my life, but it is, of course, nothing new to my grandchildren.  It is just as it has always been.  They do not remember once-upon-a-yesterday that if you wanted to speak to a person in the next room you actually had to get up and walk there, or at least raise your voice a bit.  They do not remember that if you took a photograph you had to wait days before you discovered that it was of your thumb.  They do not understand that if you wanted to win a quiz, you had to know the answers.

There is nothing new to this: we are all afforded a present that would have been unimaginable to our forbears; it has always been the same.  I recall buying a pair of roller skates for my eldest daughter and suddenly being struck by the fact that at her age I had only ever been in possession of a single skate which I scooted around on to the detriment of whichever foot my other shoe was on at the time.  My parents had food that they did not have to grow themselves, clothes that they did not have to make, lives that they did not have to lay down.  We move on.

But it is at our own peril that we forget what came before.  We live in an age where it is acceptable not to know something because it ‘was before my time’, as if history only extends as far backwards as our birth.  It could not be more wrong: we forget slavery, war, apartheid, The Beatles, famine, starvation, Van Gogh, disease at our peril.  If we forget Hitler, we leave the door open for his successor.  If we forget Mandela, we close the door on his.  Everything that came before us is part of us, everything that we take for granted is because of yesterday.

Somebody once said that ‘Those who forget the past are doomed to relive it.’  Who?  I’m not sure.  I’ll just have to look it up on my phone…

I’m sorry this is late. I will let you decide whether the glitch is mine or WordPress (Hint: it’s mine!)


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Grandchildren are quite unlike anything else in life: at once a reminder of both age and youth; of innocence and guilt; of cynicism and wonder; of joy and… well, joy if I’m honest.  They are your children’s gift to you, and proof that you at least got something right.  They simultaneously delight and exhaust.  Their progress through life without brakes is breathtaking, following a rationale and a logic that it would take an Einstein to either follow or deny:
“Grandad, can we go outside and play football.”
“Well, not just now, it’s chucking it down.”
“Later then?”
“Yes, later.”
“But what if it’s still raining later?  You said we could play football today.”
“OK, well if it’s still raining later, we’ll play football anyway.”
“Yes, alright I’ll just put my shoes on…”
Yesterday, when I was in what passed for – at a very cursory glance – my prime, when my own children saw me, albeit briefly, as a superhero, I was still young enough to be one.  By the time my grandchildren first saw me in the same light, I was old enough to realise that any attempt to live up to it could prove fatal.  I could kill myself just trying to squeeze into a leotard.  Just attempting to hoist lycra over my midriff could bring on a stroke.  None-the-less, this could be my one chance to be Superman without the attendant risks associated with confronting anything more threatening than a bottle of ketchup in the hands of a four-year old or a toddler with a full nappy.  Grandchildren don’t care that you can’t fly: their love is unequivocal.  Mind you, they are unusually prone to coughing in your face.

The devastation caused by a three-year old with a wax crayon sometimes has to be seen to be believed.  My children constantly tell me, “You would have gone mad if I had done that.  With them, you just redecorate.”  It might well be true, but only because it requires less effort.  The great privilege of being a grandparent is that you do get to say ‘Yes.  Why not?’ much more often than you did as a parent.  It is expected.  You are shorn of the responsibility of parenthood: allowed to know that sometimes what is best for the child is not always what is best for the child: that another afternoon slumped in front of Peppa Pig will not actually kill either of you; that there is nothing wrong with just being daft from time to time; that if they really won’t eat anything other than chocolate, well, at least it’s something.  I know that it won’t stay like this forever: soon enough they’ll be too big to ‘climb upon my knee’ and I will become the smelly old man they have to visit sometimes, when their conscience gets the better of them.  Not so much forgotten as sidelined: a ‘do you remember when…?’ by-line in their lives.  It’s just how it is.    

Obviously, when they’re more thrilled to see me waiting for them at the school gates than their parents, it’s awful – but on the other hand…

Grandparenthood is a gift, but it is, never-the-less, a twenty-four hours a day job and once you qualify there is no going back: you are forever grandad.  Fortunately, the only cost is a constant availability for cuddles and conversation – not too onerous is it?  This is a topsy-turvy world we are living in, but when a four-year old grandchild inveigles their way onto your knee and falls asleep, there is not too much wrong with it, if I’m honest.