PC 181 What Vague Idea? A Plan?


In an ideal world everyone would have food, water and housing and the state would provide  health care and education systems that ensured your life expectancy was as good as your lifestyle and genes allowed. Oh! And there would be no conflict between people, and peoples, and everyone would live in harmony with one another. Yeah! Right! Sadly the ideal is submerged by the rising tide of individual and state egos and we stumble on in a very imperfect world.

For those of you who don’t plan, letting life dictate what you do, take heart from Professor Lord May of Oxford, who died recently aged 83. “I began as an undergraduate engineer,” he said, “became a professor of physics, was transmogrified to an ecologist then got interested in infectious diseases as an epidemiologist. None of this was planned; it just happened.”

In the UK there has been much criticism of the Public Health England’s lack of contingency planning for the current pandemic. In that ideal world there would be warehouses up and down the country stacked to the rafters with all sorts of gear that multiple government departments might need in case of an emergency; every year it would be checked, the ‘use by’ dates ensuring a turnover and further purchase to top up stocks. If you live in the UK you may recall a really cold snap many winters ago – snow blanketed the country and it ground to a halt? People moaned that we didn’t have enough snowploughs to cope, adding flattering comments about Canada or Switzerland. But they would be the first people to criticise HMG if they found that the cost of buying, storing and maintaining snowploughs in the once-in-a-decade likelihood of their use could fund three secondary schools. In an ideal world …….

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The Civil Service has Contingency Plans for a whole myriad of scenarios, some more likely to happen than others. We now know there is one for a pandemic but that it wasn’t properly funded as other Government priorities demanded current attention. There will definitely be some for the funeral arrangements needed when the monarch dies. One that didn’t work well was for the coronation of Edward VII in 1902. Edward was the eldest son of Queen Victoria and ascended the throne on January 22, 1901 upon Victoria’s death.

Born in 1841 he had had to wait a long time to succeed to the throne, being 61 at the time of the coronation (Note 1); he had married Princess Alexandra of Denmark in 1863 who bore him three sons and three daughters. The coronation was originally scheduled for 26th June 1902, but a few days before it was due to take place Edward had to undergo an emergency appendectomy, so it was postponed for six weeks until 9th August 1902. Imagine the chaos of all the international guests assembled in London having to stay somewhere for longer than planned! Bet there wasn’t any contingency planning for that! No ‘What If …..?’!

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These scribbles are another example of how things in life evolve without any planning. Those of you who have been reading since the beginning look away now; briefly, on my second trip to Brazil in 2013 I got bored queuing for postage stamps in a Rio de Janeiro post office so sent my news electronically. Those addressees multiplied and when I returned home the ‘comments and thoughts’ email became a regular once-a-fortnight post on WordPress. This is now my 181st!

Some decades ago there was a potato shortage in Belgium caused by blight, and apparently Britain imported lots of Belgium potatoes to satisfy our demand for ‘fish ‘n’ chip’. For the sake of clarity as it doesn’t really matter, the price of potatoes in the UK went up from £50 per ton to £100 per ton. Charles Handy, a management guru whose books I devoured as much as Cadbury’s Whole Nut chocolate bars, met a chum, let’s call him Andrew, in a pub and in the course of conversation the potato shortage came up. He and Andrew simply moaned about the lack of chips!

Years later they saw each other again and Charles recalled the potato story. His friend said: “Well, you know what? I had a contact in India and was able to source 100,000 tons of potatoes at £55 per ton. Arranged transport and …….”.  By this time Charles is not listening as his brain is whirring: £45 per ton cheaper, 100 thousand tons, that’s £4.5 million profit minus transportation and distribution costs. Now, why is it some people are always able to find the upside of a crisis and exploit it? Why didn’t I think of it? He tuned back in as Andrew was saying “…… but there were problems in getting an export licence and the whole opportunity was lost. Another pint?”

I spent a year enduring the Army Staff College course at Camberley in Surrey. I came away with some good memories and some not-so-good, but it was drummed into us that “proper planning and preparation prevents piss poor performance”! I had already learned that it’s actually training and rehearsals that prevent fuck-ups.

No matter how you look at it, every crisis provides an opportunity for someone. At the north end of our street, Albany Villas, there is/was a traditional barbers shop: “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” – whether you agree with the sentiment or not, you will probably agree it’s a lovely name for a place that cuts men’s hair? The owners had been wanting to sell the business for months but resisted the local Iranian cartel who planned to turn it into another restaurant (we already have a number within 100m!). Then came the lockdown and the doors closed, the scissors and electric razors silenced. Incidentally I had not been a customer of theirs, preferring the attentions of Monika and Sebastian at Aguavida a few blocks away.

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It remained that way until three weeks ago, when an enterprising Turk and his teenage son filled it with fresh vegetables and fruit, put up awnings outside to protect the produce from the unseasonally warm sun, and opened for business. Just a family wanting to make the most of these funny times; no planning, just thinking outside of the box ……… just happening.


Richard 21st May 2020

Note 1 There are parallels today as the current heir to the throne is 70!




PC 180 Individual Fear

To bring an old metaphorical story up to date ……..

Sitting around the bar-café table was part of their morning routine, these retired chaps who simply wanted to chew the fat, gossip and share their thoughts and news. Most days they played cards, having ordered their own personal coffee preferences, espresso, Americano, Latte, Cappuccino or indeed on a weekend a little glass of beer. They sit in the shade, smiling at the world around them.

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One morning Jim was being unusually quiet.

“What’s wrong Jim?” asks George, a retired plumber, “you look very troubled.”

Indeed Jim, looking as though he had the weight of the world on his shoulders, announces that he had had a really strange dream, actually a bit of a nightmare; that gets their attention:

“Somewhere outside of the city I came across, how would I describe it? ……. I don’t know, a sense, something I couldn’t touch, couldn’t see but I felt an emotion that whispered through the trees like a spirit; it felt evil and strange but there was no sense of smell. The earth shook …… trembled …. as if someone or something was stomping around. As I watched I saw people being embraced by this invisible vapour and running home. Everything was very black and white.

“How come it didn’t get you Jim?” asks Andres with a slight smirk on his face.

“I guess it didn’t like the smoke of my old pipe tobacco and kept away!!”

“Sensible spirit” says Andres, laughing at the same time as waving Jim’s smoke from his face. The conversation then relapses into the normal exchange of stories, reminiscences and how one of them had missed that hole-in-one on the golf course.

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But as the day passes the wind increases in strength, the forecasters warn of torrential rain and the town council announces that everyone should go home …… and stay there. Schools close early, restaurants shut. A horrendous storm broke over the town, trees were blown over and roads blocked; an elderly woman suffered a heart attack. The barman at the café had overheard Jim talking about his nightmare and mentioned it to the baker who delivered the loaves for the lunchtime sandwiches. He repeated it back at the bakery and very soon rumour control took it, enlarged it and it became a stated fact, that out in the fields there was something very evil. Jim’s family had worked the land for generations, knew all about the local folklore, and this only added to the credibility of the story. Fear took over and no one applied the ‘common sense’ filter. What he had seen in his dream somewhere beyond the bounds of the city was now a real terrifying spirit, a bogey man, a ghostly spectre.

There was a sort of self- imposed lockdown. Those who could packed their storerooms with quantities of stuff they thought they might need; those who couldn’t relied on friends and neighbours to buy basics for them.

A week later the gentlemen met to play Knock-out Whist. Their faces showed the strain of living with their wives for a whole week, as they had obeyed the general diktat and not gone out – except for essential supplies and exercise – and a game of cards was exercise for arthritic fingers! As they were moaning about how some things were no longer available in the shops, Angelo sidles up to the table.

“Psst! Want some flour?” asks Angelo, always wanting to make a fast buck.

“Piss off Angelo!” says George

“No flour? How about some loo paper, I can sell it to you for a big discount.”

Shortages had indeed begun to appear; loo paper had become a real sought-after item despite the population not developing any additional arsehole …..

“…….. although there are many arseholes by way of behaviour in the council!” jokes George. The old boys around the café table thought the politicians nincompoops who thought themselves quite intellectual but lacked an ounce of common sense. All they seemed to do was talk and mumble and give eloquent speeches which when analysed amounted to nothing of substance and the people suffered.

“Half of them don’t know their arseholes from their elbows” laughs Jim. “Did you see on the news that leader, the one with the blonde bouffant hair, wiping his elbow with loo paper?”

They all creased up at the absurdity ……. “You couldn’t make it up!” cries Matthew.

What people read about on the various social media platforms formed opinion; no one was sure whether the stories were true or fake or simply the origin of some mindless troll sitting in his back bedroom with a completely distorted view of his fellow human beings. They learned that other cities were suffering in the same inexplicable way and were arguing amongst themselves what to do, as well as looking for someone to blame, because there’s always someone to blame.

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After two months, during which the winds outside the city lashed the fields and brought down woods as if by some unseen giant hand, the population got restless. The unseen, invisible bogeyman that was causing so much havoc began to take on huge proportions and fear began to run through people’s minds ….. re-inforced by those who always saw the negatives.

One morning Jim suggested he go and see what was really out there ……. if anything! Andres, George and Matthew thought this was a grand idea although conspicuously not volunteering to accompany him!

So Jim started on the road out of the city, wrapped up against the driving rain and whipping wind, towards the forests; some townspeople criticised him for exercising too far from the town, but he was deaf to their pleas. But as he left the sanctuary of the city he immediately realised the wind was easing; 30 minutes later nearing the large five-barred gate into an area of broken tree-stumps the wind was barely rustling the bushes; a few steps further and it was so soft as to be a vague hint of down on his cheek. He bent down to pick up a single blade of grass and looking at it, noticed an extremely small man clinging to the stem.

“What’s your name?” asked Jim.

“Fear” mumbled the little figure, still in the palm of his hand.

‘Well, I don’t need you’, thinks Jim as he squeezes the stem between his thumb and forefinger, like snuffing out the flame of the candle.  He wondered why it had been so violent only moments before and then realised he had simply confronted his fear and that of his fellow citizens

“The end of Lockdown Phase One” cry the citizens as Jim returns.


Richard 14th May 2020

PS Back in the 1970s in Germany one year there was a fearful storm that swept through north of Hamburg. I was on an artillery live firing exercise on the ranges of Bergen-Hohne. The exercise was halted as the wind speeds increased to hurricane-force gusts. Driving back to our training base later it did look as though a giant’s fingers had simple swept forward and back through the pine forests, most of which now lay flat and broken.

PPS You will remember that line from “When Shepherds Watched Their Flocks” …… “Fear Not, for mighty dread had seized their troubled minds.”

PC 179 Just The Ticket

Funny how something so innocent as an old railway ticket can start my mind running; I wonder whether you have the same reaction when you see this, posted on Facebook last week?

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The basic details are evident: a used second-class ticket for a child, for a one-way journey from Hassocks to London (SR) (Ed: Southern Region), valid for three days from 2nd November 1972 in exchange for £0.49. It even has a number, 0348, although the relevance of this is not obvious. A stiff piece of card unlike today’s rather flimsy paper ticket.

Then the enquiring bit of my little brain takes over. Was this a train pulled by a steam engine? When did decimalisation in the UK take place; surely it was about this time? Who was the child and where was he or she going on this single journey? Were they accompanied or were they old enough to travel on their own? What was going to happen when they arrived in London? And maybe more importantly why had they kept this particular ticket and where had it lain for over forty years, as it’s remarkably clean? Indeed why do any of us keep stuff like this?

If my memory serves me well, the owner of the ticket, let’s call him Freddie Chumboy, attended a boarding school in the village of Hurstpierpoint a few miles from Hassocks. They were aged 13 at the time of this single journey and I think it was probably too late to be half-term, so why were they travelling to London? The validity of the ticket is three days and the second of November in 1972 was a Thursday, so possibly they travelled on the Friday or Saturday – or was he doing a runner, filled with a mixture of excitement and anxiousness, walking the mile or so from College to the Hassocks Railway Station, making his way to home in the London suburbs to plead not to be forced to board, hoping of course for a sympathetic ear? You may recall my own experiences of boarding school so I would certainly be on his side!

Hassocks has a railway station which is two stops north of Brighton. London-bound, you would travel through Burgess Hill, Wivelsfield Green and Haywards Heath before crossing the glorious Victorian construction of the Balcombe Viaduct.

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At the bottom of this photograph the road crossed the River Ouse on a little hump-back bridge. As a child I sat in the back of the bus and was lifted off the bench as the bus went over; simple pleasures huh!

In PC 58 ‘Going Home’ I recalled my 2015 visit to the house that my parents bought in Balcombe, 18 miles north of here, in 1956. My stepfather commuted to London Victoria from Balcombe railway station, tipping his hat to Mr Smart the Station Master; his office was in Tothill Street in Westminster. The trains were pulled by steam-powered locomotives up until 1967; the carriages had long corridors and compartments for 8 people, outward-opening doors and windows you could open by pulling up a leather strap and fastening the strap on some brass studs to ‘lock’ it open. As any child would have done, we loved putting our heads out of the window, careful not to get covered in soot or having one’s head taken off by a track-side signal pole! And the smell of burning coal ….. and steam ….. and soot ….. and oil …. remains seared into my memory.

But when he took this journey, Freddie’s train would have had a diesel-powered locomotive. I can imagine him delighting in his new-found freedom, even if he had to wear his shorts and school cap. He may remember the Ticket Inspector snipping the right-hand side, probably with some comment and smile:

“Why Thank You Sir! Enjoy your journey.”

North of Balcombe the railway line went through a long tunnel, a favourite spot for those wishing to end their lives, according to our local doctor, a Doctor Haire. Whenever he attended a drinks or supper party at our house he would tell some hideous stories of when he had had to help the rescue services in recovering the body. The whole London – Brighton railway line featured in a speeded-up film, taking one minute to travel the 58 miles.

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A box of treasures

But where has the ticket been? If you read PC 70 from May 2016 entitled ‘My man-drawer’, you will know that I have to have somewhere for those you-never-know-when-I-might-need-it items, but this is different. This is a memento, a treasured piece of cardboard which to their touch would immediately flood their mind with emotions, good or bad. I first meet Freddie on Wandsworth Common in London in 2002 where, in the early morning mist, we would walk our respective Labradors, my Tom and his Sam, Tia and Aero. So I wasn’t surprised to see he had found this old ticket, as I know him to be a hoarder extraordinaire. What I don’t know is whether there are boxes of other used tickets etc hidden somewhere. Incidentally on the reverse side would have been the Terms & Conditions of Carriage.

Much to Celina’s dismay ….. no, that’s the wrong word ….. resignation …… I have little cardboard boxes/folders/tins/plastic boxes full of stuff. The oldest stuff in the bottom, more recent treasures or mementos or ‘that might come in useful’ towards the top. You might detect that I have kept all my old passports and wallets? Why? Search me …… nostalgia I guess.

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Before 15th February 1971 Britain’s currency was based on the Roman system (Librum, solidus and denarius equated to LSD – pounds shillings and pence) There were 12 pence to a shilling and 20 shillings to a pound. To confuse Johnny Foreigner we also had a florin (two shillings), a Half Crown (two shillings and sixpence), a Crown (five shillings) and a Guinea (One pound and one shilling) (Note 1.) So Freddie’s ticket cost 49 pence, almost ten shillings in ‘old money’.

Opening a box of one’s mementos is like starting an archaeological dig through the strata of one’s life. Down in the ‘Teenage Era’ Freddie unearthed an old railway ticket from 48 years ago – ‘Just the ticket!’ you might say.


Richard 7th May 2020

PS     Do you have something that could make the subject of some future scribbles? Let me know ……

Note 1 When a thoroughbred race horse is sold in the UK the price is determined in Guineas; the original gold for the gold coin came from Guinea in West Africa. Some of the more famous UK horseraces retain the connection – for example the ‘1000 Guineas’ and the ‘2000 Guineas’.

Note 2 Podcasts for some 30 PCs are now available on http://www.podbean.com