Australian/English Rivalry

David removed from threat with his beloved Guardian and Cabernet Sauvignon.

A few years ago (2016) I won a pair of tickets to the British Grand Prix at Silverstone, which is a 4 day event (arrive on first day, set up in the camping field, two days of practice and qualifying and then race day). David, a friend, came along and we duly arrived, having only to pay for our camping. So we had four days of chilling out and watching the motor racing, and all of the other pleasures that go into such an event.

Yes, there was the racing, but there was a good amount of downtime, drinking coffees, maybe a beer or wine later in the day – basically periods of indolence interspersed with a bit of motor racing. Ideal.

But apart from the racing (and all of the other stories I could tell about the weekend) there is always one memory that jumps out. The moment when it could all have gone horribly wrong. Let me explain.

David is an Australian.

Enough said, you might think, but we always indulge in a fair bit of international rivalry and it has to be said that David can dish it out pretty good. For instance, if there is a test match featuring our national sides and (imagine such a thing happening) if the Aussies are winning – well I avoid his phone calls. Similarly, should the boot be on the other foot, he is remarkably difficult to track down, so in a nutshell, we indulge in heavy duty ribbing and no insults are too strong – nothing is out-of-bounds.

So how did this kick off at the British Grand Prix? Well, it’s well known there are no notable Aussies in the Grand Prix circus (if you ignore Daniel Ricciardo who barely features in a race, except when he lucks into a win) and Lewes Hamilton had the whole thing wrapped up fairly early in qualifying, so no cause for alarm. That’s when it happened.

It was the evening after qualifying and we were sitting in the catering area eating Badger Burgers (at least, that’s what they tasted like) washed down with a bottle of red, minding our own business, David was reading the Guardian (a bit of a lefty) and all was quiet when we were joined by three fellow enthusiasts with whom we exchanged some merry banter (they had detected an Antipodean). “Are you an Australian?” they asked, stating the obvious, but years of this sort of opening gambit had taught David that you don’t mess about – you go for the jugular.

“Yes” he replied. “Just come to see you pommy bastard makeweights get stuffed by Ricciardo”, he replied, barely looking up from his newspaper. A comment that was greeted with a puzzled silence by our new found friends. That’s when I noticed they wore vests emblazoned with the cross of St George and all had suspiciously short haircuts (or were even bald in the case of one of them who helpfully had his name “Nozzer” printed across his vest). David noticed none of this, took another swig of wine to fortify himself and settled down for a prolonged discussion on the disadvantages of being English before launching into a tirade of abuse against the English in general in the best tradition of Aussie/Brit relationships.

Our new found friends were shocked into silence at this, barely able to believe what they had heard, but this was turning nasty fast, so I stepped in to remind David that we had agreed to meet someone on the other side of the circuit in about five minutes. He looked at me quizzically. “Who?” he demanded. “We don’t know anyone” before he suddenly took in the St George vests and the suspiciously short haircuts, looked at his watch and said “We’d better get a move on”, grabbing his Guardian, his bottle of wine and making off with unseemly haste.

As we left, I heard one of our new found friends saying to another “What’s he on about? I think we might have been insulted. Do you think he was taking the piss Nozzer?” But we never got to find out what Nozzer thought. We had moved on – disappeared into the crowd – making a mental note that tomorrow night we might choose another spot for our evening repast.

Don’t read this if you’re squeamish!

Just had an op done on my eye. Something to do with the epiretinal membrane.

Basically they got a sharp needle, drove it into my eye, sucked out the fluid (possibly, or I may have imagined that) scraped the epiretinal membrane at the back to remove distortion, cut out the lens and put in a new one to remove a cataract, filled the eye up again with the fluid plus a small air bubble (not sure why) and put it all back together again. All in day surgery! Home in time to watch “24 hours in A&E”. Now I’m an expert.

It was under a general anaesthetic (sigh of relief) but apparently they can do it under a local. So now I am walking about with an eye patch like a pirate. And probably typing with a lot of spelling errors since I can’t see the screen very easily.

Just reporting all this because I think it sounds rather splendid. When you hear what they’re going to do it sounds awful. In actual fact, I was pretty much unaware of it and it was fine. But I may as well milk it.

NHS. Bloody marvellous. And wonderful surgeons, doctors and nurses. Let’s give them all a good pay rise. Tell Theresa I said so.

The view From My Window – Rowcroft

The garden at Rowcroft Hospice, Torquay, Devon

The following started off as a blog, and then was expanded as the text for  an address I was honoured to make at a friend’s funeral. The full text is shown here with the permission of the family.

The view from the window at Rowcroft Hospice in Torquay is of a beautiful English garden, planted to give a feeling of space and tranquility – a respite for the patients who savour the chance to view a wider world than the four walls of their ward. The atmosphere is remarkably upbeat for an establishment in which you wouldn’t think there was much chance to find anything positive. But you’d be wrong.

I was here visiting a friend, Paul W. They were trying to sort out his medication to make him more comfortable, and today I saw something remarkable. He had particularly asked me to visit on this day because there was to be a classically trained pianist playing in the chapel, and Paul wanted me to be there because he knew I would enjoy the performance.

But the day had not started well. He was uncomfortable, depressed and ‘out of sorts’ and was, by his usual standards, uncommunicative. I wheeled him silently into the chapel and we sat and listened to the beautiful music. Not a movement from him, and I thought that maybe he had fallen into a slumber. If that was what the music did for him, it was a blessing. We listened peacefully until the pianist finally closed with a few gentle notes.


And then Paul leaned slightly towards me, his eyes still tightly closed, and with a conspiratorial stage whisper that was surely intended to reach the pianist, carefully enunciating each word,  said, “I – think – he’s – getting – the – hang – of – it”.

The tension was broken by our mirth, probably to the puzzlement of the pianist who wasn’t used to having his audience dissolve into howls of laughter. But there was one very important lesson that I learnt that day.

He had the best health care in the world, the most attentive carers and the pick of the latest pharmaceuticals, but it took music to bring back the old Paul.

His sense of humour was familiar to all who knew him. Very dry, well observed – and slightly wicked. He would always give a chuckle which became his trademark, but he never put anyone down or gave any cause for offence. And hearing that chuckle on that day at Rowcroft was priceless. It helped me and, I hope, him.

During the years since I first met Paul there have been many occasions and stories which I could tell about him. But perhaps the most ‘typical’, which perfectly illustrates his style, was during a local National Coastwatch meeting in which most of the members were in attendance. He was chairman, and therefore sitting at the top table and he rose to start the meeting. As I recall, there were a few people present from other ‘official’ organisations in all the grandeur and rank of their uniforms, but Paul (being Paul) was not to be upstaged. We’d wondered why he kept his coat on, but as he removed it were revealed decorations and embellishments that would be the pride of any commissioned officer of the Household Cavalry in full dress uniform. He was wearing aiguillettes, gold fringed epaulets, a plumed hat and a bank of medals that probably encapsulated the full set.

Fortunately, this moment was recorded for posterity.

Of course, this brought the house down. This was just what we expected from Paul. He could puncture pomposity in a way that offended no-one and I’m sure nobody would disagree that he was (by far) the most popular member of our National Coastwatch team. And he will be sadly missed.

Now he’s gone, but never forgotten.  Goodbye old friend.

What on earth will we talk about after Brexit?

Brexit. Will it ever happen?

Imagine! You’ve just got up on the morning of 30 March 2019, come down to breakfast thinking it’s just another day and then, suddenly you’ll remember – it’s not.

Yesterday was the day we left the European Union. As you sit down with your friends/family, through the haze of the inevitable hangover (you couldn’t let such a momentous day pass without marking it with a few drinks) it will dawn on you that you have nothing to say. Just as the conversational run up to Christmas each year is brought to a shuddering halt by the abruptness of the Strictly Come Dancing finals, you will realise that you no longer have any topic of conversation to fall upon to fill those awkward moments. What will you say to the barber whilst getting a haircut? Or your fellow passengers on the train/bus as you go to work? Or even your work colleagues – although in that case you can probably revert to the standard moaning about the bosses – which, lets face it, is always a dependable standby.

So what on earth are we going to talk about after Brexit?

There are other highlights that pop up which are always reliable talking points. Take the US elections at the end of 2016. They are nothing to do with us in the UK, but we still managed to have a good moan, no matter which side we ‘supported’. Then the result came out and Trump was President. What a result that was! It might not have been a good day for democracy or the free world BUT IT GAVE US SOMETHING TO TALK ABOUT because some people thought it was a good day for democracy and the free world. So plenty of room for debate there.

Since then, it’s just got better because at 6am every weekday I wake to our alarm clock radio tuned to Radio 4 and the Today programme and am really struck by the fact that Donald Trump gets pole position each morning due to some amazing fact, comment, tweet, action or threat that he is responsible for. I wake with a lighthearted lift to my soul as I wonder fondly “What has The Donald done today?” And he hasn’t let us down at the time of writing. He’s a publicist’s nightmare because he doesn’t need a publicist. And if there wasn’t Twitter he’d have had to invent it. (Thinking about it, he probably claims he did invent it.)

But even The Donald loses his lustre after a while because we begin to expect the unbelievable, so are not easy to surprise any more – with the result that the subject becomes passé.

That won’t happen with Brexit because we know that the confusion will carry on at least until the 29 March 2019, when we are supposed to be leaving, and I bet that doesn’t go entirely according to plan either. It’s one of those dates that is a bit like your projected retirement date. The closer you get to it the further they move it away, so you become like Boris Karloff as Frankenstein’s monster pursuing, not some beautiful maiden but your retirement, never quite capturing her but getting tantalisingly close. I suspect that no matter how fast we pursue it, Brexit will remain just out of reach.

So maybe there’s no need to worry. Brexit will NEVER happen. After March next year it will be pushed back a bit and will remain just a couple of months away – forever.

The View From My Window – Gannets

Gannets in Torbay!

After a rough night thanks to Storm Eleanor, it’s a choppy day out at sea with at least eight cargo vessels sheltering in Torbay. But I have been prompted to write, not by the ships but by the Gannets.

The storm has apparently coaxed large shoals of fish into the bay, and as always, they bring Gannets. Of all the seabirds around, these put on the most exciting show, with their long, slender, black-tipped wings of around two metres span, their brilliant white bodies and their delicately coloured yellow heads. With a greater wing span than the more pedestrian Herring Gulls which are our more familiar resident, their delicacy and grace coupled with a demonstration of their fishing skills never fails to make me gasp.

They cruise the skies at about 100 feet, looking down whilst scanning for fish (goodness knows how in these choppy waters) before suddenly flipping over like a dive bomber, pulling their long wings parallel to their body to create a “W” shape and then – whoosh – hit the water at speeds of up to 60mph (100kph). Once below the waves, they then pursue their target, being as agile in the water as the skies, before bobbing triumphantly to the surface complete with fish in their bills.

You can’t help but be impressed. It’s not an everyday sight so close inland, as they are normally fishers of more open waters, but when you see them – wow!

The View From My Window – Torbay

The view from my window

As I stare vacantly out of the window, eating my breakfast, it’s suggested to me that I ought to write about what I can see. Well, because we overlook Torbay in Devon (UK), there’s quite a lot to see.

Torbay itself is like a huge bite taken out of the South Devon Coast (bizarrely, facing East) of about four miles diameter and consisting of the three towns of Torquay, Paignton and Brixham. From our window (on a clear day) I can see out of the bay and right across to Sidmouth on the left, just peeping around the edge of the outstretched arm of Torquay, and along the Devon and Dorset coast to Portland to the right. The white cliffs of Bere Head are visible – unusual from the rest of the coast because most of the cliffs hereabouts are that glorious reddish brown so typical of Devon.

So on a clear day we have a view of almost 60 miles and there’s always something happening. But today it was the dolphins that got me going. For the second time this week there have been about 40 of them (in two distinct groups) going backwards and forwards just below us, presumably feeding – and here’s my point – in spite of the fact that we’re only three days from Christmas. The BBC news was getting very excited the other day with the announcement that researchers had ‘discovered’ that a pod of about 28 Dolphins has taken up residence around St Ives Bay. Presumably, they are excited because the dolphins appear to be over-wintering here.

Well, I’ve got news for them. From what I could count, I saw about forty whilst I was having my breakfast, and that’s not unusual. Believe me, there’s no better way to start the day than watching dolphins arcing out of the sea whilst you’re eating a croissant. Watch this space for updates on the view.

Lyme Bay showing field of view

As I said earlier, on a very clear day we can see Portland. You may think that a bit strange, since, if you are of average height, and stand on the beach with your toes almost in the water, the horizon will only be about 3 miles away. Our house is about 100 feet above sea level, so that increases the distance to the horizon to roughly 12 miles. So how come we can see Portland, which is about 50 miles away? Well, of course, we can’t see the shoreline – just the high ground. Even Sidmouth at 23 miles is only visible in its more elevated areas. But see it we can. The most striking feature of the Portland area is the 72 foot high Hardy Monument, three and a half miles inland from Abbotsbury. Built in memory of Vice Admiral Sir Thomas Hardy (of Battle of Trafalgar fame), it was designed in the shape of a spyglass and situated to be visible as a navigational aid for shipping up to 60 miles away. Thus, it is conveniently visible (on a very clear day and with the aid of a telescope) from my window as I eat my breakfast.

What better way is there to start the day than watching the dolphins and ensuring the Hardy Monument is in good order?

If you only do one thing today – get a Fender Stratocaster

Looks wonderful on the wall

You don’t have to be able to play it – or even tune it. Just hang it on the wall and look at it. It’s an object of beauty and promise. Just touching it is a joy.

I started playing the guitar in my mid teens, and you could be excused for thinking that I should be quite good by now. Well I’m not. From my thirties until about a year ago (thirty years later) I stopped playing. What got me going again was a brand new Squier (by Fender) Bullet Strat I bought on the internet. I couldn’t believe you could buy a new “Strat” for so little, but hey, it would look good on the wall.

And I love it. The Fender Stratocaster is one of the most ubiquitous guitars of the last 50+ years and (in my opinion) it meets all of the criteria for a work of art. It looks good, feels good and, as a bonus, can sound good too. It is a triumph of form and function.

Of course, if you get one, you’ve got to take it down from the wall from time to time. And with a little practice it plays beautifully. It has an action that makes it a pleasure to play and handle – and this is the bottom of the range model, for goodness sake – and now I’ve even pimped it with a floral leaf pattern, just to make it unique.

I’ve got my eye on an “American Elite” Stratocaster in Sky Burst Metallic with maple fingerboard, which is a lot more money, and the day I win the lottery will be the day I order one of those. I will hang it on the wall next to the Squier, and take it down to play whenever I get the chance. In my hands it won’t sound any better than its forebear, but wow. What’s better than a Strat? Two, of course.

Your call is important to us – but . . .

How many times have you made a call to a business, only to get a recorded message that goes something like this? “Your call is important to us, but we are extremely busy at present. Please hold on on and we will get to you as soon as possible.”

And then another voice cuts in and informs you that waiting time is currently 15 minutes – 30 minutes – an hour!!!?

When I hear this type of message I actually interpret it as “Your business doesn’t matter to us at all. Although we are a large company, to maximise our profits we minimise the number of staff who man the phones”.

There’s no excuse for it and some companies (I won’t mention any by name) always seem to give out that message, even at the quietest of times. Which leads me to conclude that they man their call answering services secure in the knowledge that the poor punter will always wait – because he has no other choice.

Here’s an idea. What about these offending businesses trying a different tack? How about prompt, personal service? Answering the phones with a real person thus creating a genuine relationship. In my business, I value my clients and certainly want to talk to them whenever they ring.

I’m not sure what the benefit of writing this is. I can’t think that any of these offenders will change their ways. But I’d be interested to know if anyone agrees with me on this – that I’m not a lonely voice, crying in the void out of sheer frustration. If you give me a call, I promise I’ll answer it – personally.