Writing...

  • Novel cover

    Extracts

    The Better Brother

    Special offer. Free copies.
    I’m giving away a limited number of free copies ofThe Better Brother. If you would like one, simply email me at simongravatt@mac to request a copy

    The Better Brother is a dark comedy on the escalating conflict between two brothers who inherit their family funeral business.

    ‘Your novel is terrific. It’s intelligent, well written, funny and compelling.’ Tim Lott, Author and Writing Coach

    ‘I loved your book! It reminded me of Jonathan Coe – a gripping and easy-to-read story on the surface with lots of other deeper questions slipped in almost subliminally.’ Jamie Keenan, Book Cover Designer

    ‘Brilliant. A page-turning ripping yarn, provincial England’s answer to Succession complete with some very funny moments. Hugely enjoyable. Review on Amazon

    ‘Witty, fast paced, couldn’t put it down. This is a great story in the true sense of the word. Part comedy, part mystery, part philosophy, it is a rollicking life affirming roller coaster. Well written and in turn funny sad and wise. Great choice for your next weekend or holiday if you want to forget about everything!’ Review on Amazon

    ‘I opened The Better Brother as my flight to New York took off and finished it in the queue for customs! I couldn’t put it down, it had so many twists and turns and made me laugh out loud! I loved it’ Michelle Blayney

    ‘Betrayal, resentment, power games and cut-throat cunning – this darkly comic and compelling debut takes sibling rivalry to a whole new level. Exploring deep-rooted family rifts and the perils of flying a little too close to the sun, this cautionary tale about two feuding brothers is emotionally charged from beginning to end …This story is about our relationships with our family. How what happens to us in our childhood can shape us for the good or the bad. And how sometimes we can only start to fix what is broken when we’re ready. The Better Brother is dotted with platitudes and puns – and some proper laugh out loud moments – but it’s also a novel that asks questions of us all. How far we’re prepared to go, and what risks we’re prepared to take for money and power. A clever, witty, insightful read.’ LindsayQuayle, Lovereading

  • Alison Gray

    I’ve started to write the story of a woman who competes, and triumphs, in a man’s world.

    Alison Gray, my grandmother, had no previous business experience when she took over the family sports firm after her second husband’s death in 1938.

    She overcame the twin challenges of running a business during the war and the chauvinism of the sports industry to lay the foundations for the current success of the firm, before her own untimely death in 1950.

    The book I’m writing is historical fiction inspired by her and based around key events in her life between 1938 to 1945. I’ve included here a couple of extracts from an early rough draft.

  • Fact and Fiction includes a collection of pieces inspired by random bits of the world as I find it.

    A Painfully True Story is a factual account of what happened when a man left his passport on a train.

    The Pitch, an outtake from The Better Brother, draws loosely from my experience of the advertising industry. Bumble is a political satire inspired some dodgy calls in a tennis match I recently lost (only because of the dodgy calls, of course).

    Confessions of an eleven-year-old

    I was eleven years old when Confessions of a Window Cleaner first got me thinking about becoming a writer. It was less the book that interested me than the man who wrote it. Timothy Lea was the pseudonym of Christopher Wood, who lived in our village and whose two boys went to the same school as me. I remember him as a big bearded man in a long black leather coat who made his presence heard on the touchline of school soccer matches. He was quite unlike all the other parents at our Cambridge prep school and not just because he had the time to come and watch the games. None of the other fathers, to my knowledge, had a day job writing smutty sexual stories.

    He had written his first novel while commuting on the train to his London advertising job. Its success enabled him to give up advertising and write a further eighteen confessions books, including classics such as Confessions of a Plumber's Mate. Like us, the Woods lived in Mill House; unlike ours, their's was a proper mill with a water wheel. Christopher Wood wrote a couple of James Bond screenplays and left the village to become a tax exile in the South of France.

    I hadn’t, at that point, considered writing as a career option – my sights were set on professional football – but I registered, from Christopher Wood's example, that there certain benefits to be had from a writer's life: Wealth, beautiful house, attractive wife, and – most importantly – time to watch football.

    Influences

    The second writer to pique my interest was a friend of my parents called Sarah Harrison. She wrote a bestseller called Flowers in the Field, but that was much less interesting to me than her follow-up novel. Hot Breath was about a woman who embarked on a passionate affair with her local Greek GP. Our village at the time, rather unusually, had an Italian GP, and many of the characters in Sarah's novel bore a striking resemblance to people we knew. I couldn't help wondering what our GP, or more to the point, his wife, made of it all. Or, indeed, Mr Harrison.

    A few years earlier, when travelling around America as an eighteen-year-old, I had found myself in the back of a Lincoln Continental Convertible with my friend Andrew and two women old enough to be our mothers. In the back of that car, caressed by the warm Massachusetts air and with nothing between me and the cloudless sky, it struck me that I wanted to be a paperback writer. It was a daydreamy kind of thought rather than a serious aspiration and was, undoubtedly, influenced by the book I was reading at the time – The World According to Garp. Mind you, as well as wanting to be a writer, Garp also had ambitions to become a professional wrestler, which, I have to say, was not something that featured in my daydreams that afternoon.

    A tiny seed had been planted in my mind a couple of years before by J.R.R. Tolkien's grandson. He said of me, 'he's a poet but doesn't know it.' I certainly didn't. I was an academic underachiever whose proudest claim was to be awarded every grade possible at O'Level, including an X. My single A grade came in English Literature, thanks, in part, to a paper marked internally by our Head of English, Michael Tolkien. I got the highest mark in our year, which was – quite frankly – astonishing. Michael Tolkien never taught me; as head of the department, he didn't trouble himself with lower ability students like myself. His only experience of me came through this paper, and on the back of it, he pronounced me to be a poet. He was undoubtedly mistaken, not least because poetry was about as attractive a career option to me as professional wrestling. But who was I to disagree if someone with the genes of one of the world's greatest-ever writers thought there was poetry in me?

    A plan for life

    All these random formative thoughts coalesced when sitting in amongst the Hindu temples of Khajuraho, smoking dope with my friend Andrew and formulating our life plans. Mine was to spend fifteen years in advertising, build my own business in my forties and then become a writer in my fifties. I envisaged that my business would be successful enough to fund my writing. I'm not sure if it was the quality of the weed we were smoking or divine Hindu inspiration, but it was a pretty damn good plan I came up with that day. It has determined the course of my life.

    At some point, I finessed my plan to specify I would write a novel that made people laugh. I envisioned seeing a stranger on the tube chuckling over my book. (I didn't have the foresight to realise that by the time my book came out, I wouldn’t be travelling by tube.)

    Seduced by trappings

    A press advertisement for an IBM laptop confirmed I was on the right track. It showed an open laptop on a veranda with a beautiful early evening view. The understated headline read "John Grisham's pad." If this was what a writer's office was like, I had no doubt that’s where I wanted to be.

    You may have noticed that my interest in becoming a writer had everything to do with the trappings of a writer's life and little to do with the act of writing. I once felt quite jealous when a colleague won a short-story competition and gave up his job to focus on a writing career. But, despite his example, it still didn't occur to me that if I wanted to be a writer, I should start writing.

    Pen to paper

    I read a review of David Lodge's novel Nice Work, which observed that very few novels are set in the business world, and next to none of them are humorous. So I decided to capitalise on this gap in the market and write a story about a family business. I had long been intrigued by my two uncles, who ran a successful family firm despite their mutual antipathy. It occurred to me that there could be comic potential in a story about two brothers in a family firm who hated each other. Moreover, I thought there might be some humour to be had in making it a funeral business. 

    I came up with what I considered to be a great opening line – "I was conceived in a coffin; this gave me a certain outlook on life." Although a good fifteen years ahead of plan, this line kick-started me into action. The trouble was I had no idea what I was doing: I didn't have a plot and hadn't thought about my characters. I quickly ran out of steam.

    The final nail in the coffin, so to speak, came when I learnt that Alan Ball – who had just won an Oscar for the brilliant American Beauty – had written a new darkly comic TV series about two brothers who inherit their family funeral business. As good as Michael Tolkien thought my writing was, there was no way I could compete with Alan Ball. To this day, Six Feet Under remains my all-time favourite TV series.

    I filed away my scribblings and, reverting to plan, started a business instead.

    Written in the plan

    My first business wasn't a great success, but it did allow me to write a couple of business books. These didn't make anyone laugh – at least I hope they didn’t – but they gave me the confidence that I could at least complete a book. 

    In 2004 we moved to the States. I began to write more regularly with my monthly emails from America, the thoughts of an Englishman trying to make sense of America. Returning home three years later, this evolved into a blog – Meanderings of a Middle Aged Man on a Bicycle – the musings of a man trying to make sense of the world in which he found himself.

    Much to my great surprise, my second business did rather well. There is no explanation for this other than it was written in the plan. It grew to employ over ninety people, which meant I eventually became superfluous and found myself with time on my hands. The other benefit of this venture was that my partner and I disagreed on practically everything, which gave me firsthand experience of workplace conflict that I could draw from when creating a story about two business owners who didn't see eye-to-eye.

    Just fine

    Having pulled back from my business, I began to wonder what I might do with all the extra time. I remembered my life plan. By then, I was fifty-seven and a half years old; I needed to get on with my first novel to meet my earlier commitment. I signed up for a three-hour workshop at the Guardian – A Beginner's Guide to Becoming a Novelist. Those three hours taught me everything I needed to know: how to go about my writing day, structure a plot, develop believable characters, and get feedback. By the end of the morning, I knew how to write my book.

    One of the many invaluable pieces of advice I took from the workshop was that giving feedback on a manuscript is a professional job, best done by those who are qualified to do so. Tim Lott, who ran the workshop, recommended not seeking feedback from anyone until the manuscript is complete and then, when it's ready, only get someone who knows what they are doing to appraise it. Whatever you do, he said, think twice before sharing your work-in-progress with your friends and family.

    I took his advice on board and, fending off my friends and family, didn't share a word with anyone until it was complete twelve months later. I then contacted Tim Lott to ask if he might be prepared to appraise my manuscript. He asked to see a few paragraphs to assess my writing. This was unnerving. What if he says it’s not up to scratch?  

    The next day I heard back from him. 'Your writing seems fine,' he wrote. Fine? Only fine?

    Moment of truth

    I sent Tim my manuscript. I had no idea if what I had written was any good; I hadn't shared it with anyone. The first person to pass judgement on it was going to be an award-winning writer and celebrated writing coach. I suddenly realised quite how much was at stake. What if he pats me on the back for the effort and asks what made me think I could become a novelist? I was reminded of waiting for my O-level results. (They often say the waiting is the worst part, but that wasn't the case with my O-level results. The waiting wasn't the problem then; it was the results that were the problem.) 

    Tim's email arrived.

    The tension as I clicked on it felt like the final kick of a penalty shoot-out. And the relief as I read it replicated the feeling of the ball hitting the back of the net and knowing your team had won. (I should add that, as a Cambridge United fan, this is an imagined feeling rather than a lived experience.)

    Tim wrote, 'Your novel is terrific. It’s intelligent, well written, funny and compelling. I really haven’t got all that much to teach you. Sorry if you thus consider this reading a bad investment!  But I do have a few pointers as to how we might tweak it. Otherwise it is ready to submit to agents. By the way, in case you think I am flattering you,  I almost never say this kind of thing to my writers - certainly not on a first submission. Congratulations SImon, this deserves to be published and be a success.'

    I spoke with Tim a couple of days later. His so-called tweaks were more what I would describe as open-heart surgery. They involved cutting a favourite subplot and finding another title. I had thought Family Unfirm was brilliant. Tim didn't. He said it was terrible. 

    Rejection

    Tim warned me that the next step, securing an agent, would be challenging. I heard him but didn't imagine it would be that difficult. After all, I had a glowing endorsement. What agent will be able to resist that? I soon learnt that Tim had understated the scale of the challenge. He might as well have said, 'it's fucking impossible’.

    I signed up with Jericho Writers, an organisation whose purpose is to help writers get published. From their database of agents and The Writers & Author's Yearbook, I compiled a long list of ninety agents from forty-two different literary agencies, who I thought might be interested in my book. I then ranked them on a five-point scale, based on the type of author they represented, whether they were interested in family or humorous novels, and actively looking for new authors. I ended up with a shortlist of seven ideal agents. I speculated how many of them would enter a bidding war for the right to represent me.

    The process of submitting a proposal to an agent is archaic, inefficient and sole-destroying. The advice is to submit proposals in batches of no more than five or six at a time. Generally, agents say they will review submissions within six weeks, although some want as long as three months, and that if you don't hear back, it will mean they're not interested. They tell you not to chase them for a response. Consequently, you end up kicking your heels, waiting weeks for a rejection that may or may not come. And when it comes, it's a standard rejection, so you never get any indication of what you might do to improve your submission. I contacted twenty agents over the next year. I got twelve rejections. Eight didn't respond.

    I found out that literary agents receive, on average, a thousand submissions a year, from which they will take on two new authors. I'm no gambler, but I like to place a bet on The Grand National. I generally pick a relative outsider, maybe a horse with odds of between 20:1 to 40:1. I would never ever consider putting money on anything at 500:1. Tim Lott had said the odds of getting an agent were further stacked against me as an older white male. I had replied that's fair enough, given I've been the beneficiary of white male privilege for all my life, but I didn't then realise that 500:1 was the starting point.

    Plan B

    I started to turn my sights towards self-publishing. While the odds of landing an agent are vanishingly small, I learnt that self-publishing has become increasingly easy.

    Embarking on a self-publishing route, I commissioned a copy-editor and looked for a cover designer. I reviewed all the winners in the book cover design awards of 2019 and pulled out a handful of designers whose covers I particularly liked. One of them, Jamie Keenan, had also won the most awards. Even though I assumed he would be far too elevated to work for a novice like myself, I contacted him.

    Much to my surprise, he said yes. Then he read my manuscript and was hugely complimentary – 'I loved your book! It reminded me of Jonathan Coe – a gripping and easy-to-read story on the surface with lots of other deeper questions slipped in almost subliminally.' Jamie came up with a design that felt just right.

    Finally, a bite

    Someone had suggested I should also contact independent publishers as a number of them accepted direct submissions. I did my research and came up with a long list of forty. Again I ranked these on my five-point scale, which gave me a shortlist of four. I sent off my submissions and four weeks later received my first bite. RedDoor Press asked to see the full manuscript. I tried, not altogether successfully, to keep my hopes under control. Two months later, I received an email from Clare Christian saying she liked it but had some buts. I'll come on to the buts; they were like Tim Lott's tweaks.

    I called Clare. The first thing she said to me was that she had been speaking to a TV agent about another project and that she could see my novel as a six-part Netflix series. She wanted to know if I agreed. I wondered if this was a trick question to flush out unsuitable head-in-clouds writers. I said I was concentrating on seeing it as a book.

    One of Clare's three buts involved a fundamental plotline, something that had been there right from the very beginning. My initial reaction was that I couldn't make such a change. I spent a few days agonising over it, feeling devastated to be so close and yet so far. A way of addressing it then came to me. I still didn't agree the change was necessary and wasn't completely confident in my solution, but on balance, I wanted a publisher more than I wanted to save that storyline.

    The other casualty of my book deal was the cover. Although Clare liked Jamie's design, she wanted the title and the author's name to be more prominent. I suddenly found myself in familiar territory: I was back to being an account man in an advertising agency stuck between a creative team who are hellbent on protecting their idea and a client who wants a bigger packshot. Jamie threw his toys out of the pram. He said he wouldn't charge me for his time, but there was no way he would make these changes. He wished me luck, and we parted company.

    Just in time

    So, here I am, thirty-eight years after my drug-induced commitment to write a book; twenty-five years after deciding it would be a humorous novel about a family business; two and a half years after starting to write it; one and a half years after completing the first draft; six months after securing a publisher; and a few months before my debut novel hits the bookshelves, finally claiming to be a writer.

    It gives me particular pleasure that The Better Brother will be published four months before my sixtieth birthday. It means I can tell my twenty-one-year-old self that I made it; I honoured that commitment.

    Just.

    Postscript

    I googled Christopher Wood, the man who, in some small way, started me on this journey. Not only did I learn that he had died six years ago, but I also saw on his Wikipedia page that his daughter Caroline is a literary agent.

    Her name rang a bell. I then realised she was one of my seven ideal agents. How perfect would the symmetry of my story have been had she agreed to represent me?

    Sadly, such an ending was not to be: She rejected my submission. 

     
  • Thoughts from a bike, inspired by my time on a bicycle between Wandsworth and Waterloo, are the musings of a middle-aged man trying to make sense of the world in which he finds himself. Here is a short selection from my archive of monthly pieces from 2014-2015.

    The Y Chromosome is about the fall of man; The Ride of my Life recalls a 14 mile hands-free ride back home from the pub; The Loneliness of a Long-Distance Cyclist explores the unconscious death-wish of the urban cyclist; Stolen Bicycles For Sale remembers an early entrepreneurial venture; Red Light is a tale of frustration.

    The Y Chromosome

    The other day I mistook the dog medicine for my cough medicine. I realised my error after the second teaspoon.

    Panicked, I barked at my wife, 'What's the dog medicine for?'

    'The dog.'

    'Yeah, I know that, but why does the dog need it? I've just had two teaspoonfuls of it.'

    'Why did you do that? If you knew it was for the dog.'

    'Why the fuck do you think I did it? To be more dog? It was a mistake. I'm a man; men make mistakes. You know that.'

    Other than taking off down the street a couple of hours later in pursuit of a tortoiseshell cat and then cocking my leg at a street lamp, there were no immediately noticeable side effects.

    The bigger concern is the possibility that this incident could be further evidence of natural selection at work. What with the declining sperm count in men and the continual atrophy of the Y chromosome, there has been some speculation that within 5,000 generations the male of the human species will become extinct.

    I think it could happen a little sooner than that.

    Men are disappearing. My company has gone from being 100% male when it started ten years ago to 50:50 at the end of last year. Three months and six female hires later, the women have taken over, and our corporate testosterone count is down to 43%. It's the same story at home where the equilibrium between the sexes was lost when my son decamped to Durham, leaving me in an uncomfortable minority of one.

    I'm surrounded by women.

    Even the dog is a bitch.

    The only two places where men outnumber women seem to be the Conservative front bench and the bicycle lanes of London. This is probably Darwinism at work. Men are ending up in those places where any reasonably intelligent person would know not to venture.

    My wife certainly plays on my deficient male cognitive ability.

    A few years ago, I announced that I was considering shaving all my remaining hair off to become completely bald. 'You can't do that', I was told, 'You have a funny shaped head'. I wasn't exactly sure what she meant by this but accepted it anyway. It was a conversation that has repeated itself several occasions since.

    Only recently, when sitting in the barber's chair having my regular 'number one' all over, did I have a rare opportunity to examine my head in the mirror. I realised I have so little hair, and cut the little I have so short, that the contours of my head are clear for anyone to see, whether I shave the last few remaining follicles off or not. I had been duped by my wife, who took advantage of my little brain. When I challenged her on it she said, 'I like you better with longer hair'.

    'Well, so do I', I thought. I like me better with longer hair, but sadly it's not an option. She might as well have said, 'I like you better when you are a virile twentysomething that is not hard of hearing and can read menus in dimly lit restaurants.' That version of me is long gone.

    Decline and fall. Me, the brotherhood and the Y chromosome are on our way out.

    I wonder if the Dodo entertained similar thoughts before that final fateful leap into the unknown.

    March 2014

     
  • Observations from America, inspired by my time in the States, are the thoughts of an Englishman trying to make sense of America. Here is a short selection from my archive of monthly missives back home from 2004 and 2007.

    The five pieces included here are Road Trip (which documents a 24-hour journey across America with a menagerie); What to do While They Pack Your Groceries (on passing time in an American supermarket); Mr Grrrrr Fart (on trans-Atlantic miscommunication); Sub Loooootenant Buzzcut (about my son’s surprising rejection from the US military); Certified (America through the eyes of Splodge Gravatt).

    Road Trip

    Twenty-four years ago, I drove out of Chicago with my buddy (friend) Andrew. Today I’m making the return trip with a new companion at my side. The road trip is the authentic American rite of passage. Route 66, Easy Rider, this is a country that loves being on the road. No image evokes America more than a track of tarmac stretching as far as the eye can see into the Great Beyond. America has always been on the move. I’ve just read a book that argues the defining characteristic of the US of A is that it’s a country that lives in the future. The American Dream is not just wishful thinking; it’s the clarion call of a people driven by the prospect of what lies around the corner. The reason Americans work so hard is that they’re striving for a better future. The reason they tend to be so optimistic and positive is that they don’t want to delay their progress by getting stuck in the here and now. Theirs is a promised land, and they want to be damn sure they’re on their way, on the road to somewhere. 

    0.0 miles: Turn ignition, check passengers are secure and set off towards our new world in Chicago.

    0.5 miles: Cast glance at lettuce-chewing companion in passenger seat and wonder what kind of personal journey could have led to a road trip with a Guinea Pig. 

    3.1 miles: Seven minutes on clock. Pass Starbucks. Rude not to stop. Big queue, as always. Finally depart thirty-eight minutes later clutching a couple of Grande Cappuccinos for road. Forty-five minutes to complete first 3.1 miles. Calculate an eight-and-a-half-day journey to Chicago at this rate. Drive out of Darien Starbucks. Lump in throat. Never like saying goodbye. 

    15.0 miles: Exit Connecticut, enter New York State.

    26.2 miles: Hit traffic jam. Hate traffic jams. Left London to escape traffic. 

    30.1 miles: Cross Hudson River. Huge. Big threatening skies. Glance at menagerie in back. Hyperactive Hamster beside itself with excitement, Hamster never done exercise wheel at 60mph before. 

    40.2 miles: Exit New York State, enter New Jersey. Traffic clears. Springsteen country. Everyone driving faster. Turn volume up and put foot on gas. Reminded of earlier road trip twenty-four years ago as foot-loose teenager. Go to run fingers through hair. Nothing there. Sink into balding middle-aged depression for next eleven miles.

    70.8 miles: Join Route 80. Will be on Route 80 for next 726.9 miles (just short of length of British Isles). One road. Don’t do things by half over here.

    75.5 miles: 72.4 miles since last Cappuccino. Too long.

    76.0 miles: Stop at Hibernia Diner. Walk in (to another world). Place goes quiet. Everyone knows everyone. No-one knows me. Order white coffee. No sugar. Young waitress uncertain. Wary of creature from another planet. Goes to make coffee, but double-checks strange order. ‘You want lite coffee with no sugar?’ Remember ‘white’ coffee confuses Americans. Become concerned that may have inadvertently presented myself as a white supremacist. Drink coffee very quickly.

    118.8 miles: Exit New Jersey, enter Pennsylvania. Slower.

    140.4 miles: Undertake. Catch Guinea Pig’s eye. Guinea Pig unimpressed. Want to explain that everyone undertakes in America. Guinea Pig wouldn’t understand.

    212.9 miles: Bleak. Late. Dark. Snowing. Sign says ‘Wild Pennsylvania’. Sign not joking.

    220.3 miles: Another sign: ‘2250 feet, highest elevation on Route 80 this side of Mississippi’. All downhill from here.

    223.2 miles: Snow freezes instantly on impact with windshield. Wonder what road must be like. Answer just around corner. Car stranded in thick snow on bank off verge. Do British thing and assume someone else will come to rescue. Look the other way. 

    232.1 miles: Hungry. 

    235.3 miles: Very hungry.

    240.0 miles: Sign for ‘Twilight Diner’ at next exit. Overjoyed. Hugely hungry. 

    240.2 miles: Get closer to Twilight Diner. 

    240.3 miles: Rejoin Freeway.

    244.7 miles: Contemplate eating Goldfish. Wonder if daughter would notice.

    246.1 miles: Hallelujah. Gamble pays off. Perkins Restaurant and Diner. Different league from Twilight Diner. Free wireless Internet access. Read match-day reports from English Premiership Boxing Day fixtures. In a deserted diner in deepest Pennsylvania.

    355.8 miles: Check into Holiday Inn Express with one Yorkshire Terrier, one Guinea Pig, one Hamster, two Goldfish at 10.46 pm. Sign behind Receptionist reads, ‘Maximum 3 pets’. Enter philosophical debate with Receptionist on what is a pet. Tell Receptionist that Goldfish would die if left in car overnight in sub-zero temperatures. Receptionist then tries to apply the $15 per pet surcharge on Goldfish. Yorkshire Terrier marks territory in corner of foyer.

    355.8 miles: 10.59 pm. Guinea Pig, having been without water for journey, drinks for England when re-united with water bottle. Try hiding head under pillow to cut out noise of Guinea Pig’s incessant slurping. Squeak of hamster wheel starts up. Wonder if guests on other side of paper-thin wall have any idea what’s really going on.

    355.8 miles: 7.30 am. Dog refuses to get in car. Dog prepared to spend rest of days in Holiday Inn Express, Brookville, Pennsylvania rather than one more minute on road. Dog does runner down Holiday Inn corridor. Give chase. Eventually corner dog behind ice machine. Drag dog into car.

    377.6 miles: "Buckle up. Next million miles". Weird sign

    428.0 miles: Exit Pennsylvania, enter Ohio

    446.3 miles: Praise the Lord. Starbucks. The first since Darien. 441.2 miles. 17 hours, 25 minutes. Buy six grande cappuccinos. Figure if the Goldfish don’t want theirs I’ll have them. Buy Dog some Beef Jerky. 

    446.5 miles: Try Beef Jerky. Spontaneously spit it out. Would rather eat dog food. Dog eying Beef Jerky as if dangerous rattlesnake.

    570.2 miles: Big landscape. Isolated clusters of trees. Distant white barns. Sheen of snow. 

    580.9 miles: Trailer park

    583.1 miles: So this is Ohio. This is where the American election takes place.

    612.9 miles: Yet another trailer park. Wonder why anyone would choose to live in a trailer. Fair enough if you’re a Bedouin, but these trailers are going nowhere. No wheels. Only time they’ll ever move is when hit by hurricane. 

    666 miles: Exit Ohio, enter Indiana. 666 miles on the clock, imposing Baptist Church looming high above.

    696.2 miles: Big billboard. Good clean-cut Americans with brilliant white smiles. Slogan promises ’outstanding Christian entertainment’. In God’s Country. Banish bad blasphemous thoughts.

    699.0 miles: Speed limit now 70 mph. Bit racy for America. With God on your side, you can travel a little faster.

    653.9 miles: This adventure a mind-blowing experience for Goldfish. Never been out of Connecticut before. Wide-eyed. Never realised another world existed beyond goldfish bowl. Will soon have forgotten where they came from. Goldfish memory span no more than three seconds. Right now, Indiana is all they know.

    797.7 miles: Turn off Route 80. Goodbye, my old friend.

    810.5 miles: Beginning to get industrial & grubby. Must be getting close to new home. 

    825.8 miles: Can see Chicago skyline. Cross bridge to a welcome to Chicago by Mayor Richard. M Daley. Must have passed into Illinois without noticing. Have also somehow passed into a different time zone. Chicago is in a bygone hour.

    825.9 miles: Hit traffic jam. Begin to realise that condemned to a life of traffic jams. Unfortunate consequence of being married to a Big Conurbation Queen Bee.

    834.0 miles: Arrive outside 2632 North Lakewood Drive at precisely 5.00 pm. Twenty-six hours on the road and thirty seconds within rendezvous time. Pleased as punch with punctuality. 

    834.0 miles: Enter new home. Expect hero’s welcome. Unlike Scott, I made it alive. Also delivered five pets, not one dead. Family too busy to notice arrival. Then daughter sees Dog. Ecstatic welcome for pets. Driver still not seen. Perhaps they think pets made their own incredible journey. Trudge back to car and start to unload luggage. It’s a dog’s life.

    January 2006

     
  • My writing journey

    I’ve no idea why, but I’ve always enjoyed writing. My old English teacher once remarked of me, ‘he’s a poet and don’t know it.’ I certainly didn’t, but it got me thinking. A few years later I saw an ad for an IBM laptop with a headline that read ‘John Grisham’s pad’ and a picture of what I thought looked like the best workplace in the world: a writing desk on a veranda overlooking the most beautiful lake. That also got me thinking.

    So here I am, a lifetime later, writing this short biography on my veranda with a view (although, sadly, no lake). Writing has been a hobby rather than my profession. But now that I’ve had the good fortune to make a few pennies from selling my stake in consultancy business I co=founded, I’m able to devote myself to a writer’s life.

    The aim of my writing is to make you laugh, but I’ll settle for the occasional smile. I welcome comments or feedback, and if you enjoy any of the pieces here, please do share them with your friends.


    Scabies on steroids

    Ros and I have collaborated as a creative team for the past 15 years to produce our annual Christmas letters, which seek to summarise the previous year in a graphic and innovative way. These letters now have quite a following amongst our friends.

    I thought I would include them here, mainly to remind us of years gone by, but also possibly to amuse you if you’ve a few minutes to kill. I particularly enjoyed being reminded of the entry for September 2020. Ros and Jay contract scabies in The Hamptons. Ros is misdiagnosed and given steroids. Ros becomes a New York medical case history on what happens when you put scabies on steroids.


  • Who the fuck is Simon?

    RIP Annie Nightingale. In my teenage years I was obsessed with her. Still am. She was the ultra cool indie rock DJ way before indie rock had been invented.

    I’m not sure how or why this came about, but around 1978 a couple of my school friends had an invitation to interview Annie Nightingale. I was horrified to hear that they didn’t even know who she was. I asked them to send her my love, which, to their credit, they did. Annie replied, ‘who the fuck is Simon?’ (Impressively colourful language to use in front of a couple of sixteen year-olds!) I was made up. She may not have known who I was, but she had said my name.

    Five years later she said it again. I was listening to her Sunday night request show in my Warrington apartment when, to my great surprise and excitement, she said, ‘this one is for Simon in Warrington from Amanda in Portsmouth’ and then played Wild Thing by The Troggs. January 17, 2023


    Perfumed bottom

    We’re working on plans to upgrade the property we recently bought in the Cotswolds. The only item I’ve requested has been met with ridicule from my wife and our interior designer. I thought a bidet represented the height of cosmopolitan sophistication, but apparently not. My argument that having a bidet in your bathroom has the same cachet as being fluent in French fell on stony ground. I was told they are old-fashioned and uncool.

    A compromise has been proposed: A state of the art Japanese lavatory that does everything a bidet does and more. Apparently it can even perfume your bottom. Now that’s something that might hold me in good stead as I meet our new neighbours. ‘What a lovely smell’, they might say. ‘Yes, that’s my bottom,’ I’ll explain. December 21, 2023


    Hole in my head

    I got a hole in my head where my tumour once was. At least I think I must have. My tumour was apparently 6cm x 5cm, which is like having egg on your head. So now that they’ve removed the tumour, I presumably have an egg-sized hole in my head.

    It’s a shame I can’t access it as it could have been a useful storage area. I lost a pair of airpods out of my pocket last week, If they’d been in my head instead I would still have them.

    Otherwise, I’m not sure what to do with the hole in my head. December 9, 2023


    Sparkle

    My daughter looked at me expectantly, waiting for the punchline. Only when she realised there was none and I was being serious did she laugh.

    Objectively, I know that I don’t have much hair (well, I do, but it’s all in the wrong places), but, as far as I’m concerned, I have a full head of hair. Which is why I wash it every day. My daughter assumed I was joking when I told her this. It had cropped up in conversation because I complained we had the wrong kind of shampoo.

    I don’t know why I do it. Maybe I’m kidding myself. But at least when I go out into the world, I know the few follicles I have left will sparkle. April 25, 2022


    Has my beard made me even more irresistible to woman?

    ‘Even more’ might be stretching it, as women have never tended to throw themselves at me. Sad to confess, but I’m a resistive type. The bearded Charles Darwin claimed that women were charmed and excited by facial hair, but I have to say, in the four years I’ve had a beard, I’ve seen no evidence of this. However, all is not lost, as a recent scientific survey has proved that beards have protective qualities. Not only can they cushion a blow, but they also help disguise the whereabouts of a man’s chin, making it harder for an aggressor to know precisely where to land his punch.

    Should a man in a pub ever become upset because he thinks his wife is making eyes at me, I will be able to tell him, with great conviction, that he is mistaken. I will explain that – despite my hirsuteness and general manliness – I pose no threat whatsoever. Should he choose to disbelieve me, another study suggests that bearded men are perceived as untrustworthy; I will at least be protected from his blows by my beard. December 26, 2021


    The Christmas card rites of passage

    The tradition of sending Christmas cards is dying a slow death. We will undoubtedly be the last generation to send them, and our descendants will never experience the Christmas card rite of passage.

    The first cards that you send are a signifier of adulthood. No longer are you a meagre appendage on your parents’ cards. Over the next few years, your list becomes a tangible measure of your social universe and popularity. The main question is, “Is this person still a friend of mine?”

    Life then becomes more complicated. You need to merge your list with your partner’s list, act as significant as buying a house together, and negotiate whether to sign jointly or individually. You also need to remember the name of your friends’ new partners and hope they’re still an item by the time they receive your card.

    The complexity then ratchets up a notch as not only do you need to sign every card with your partner’s and children’s names, but you also need to remember the names of your friends’ children. (This is a time when people commonly suffer a mid-life crisis.) This period can last over twenty years, during which time the question that looms larger each year is “are they still together?” (If the answer is no, then – “are we allowed to send a card to their ex?”).

    As time passes, you also have to decide how long to continue sending cards to people that didn’t send you one the previous year. (This requires keeping a list of every card you receive in some primitive friendship loyalty scheme.) The next dilemma is whether to continue including the names of by-now-adult children who have undoubtedly left home.

    Finally, the potentially most treacherous phase – which we’re now entering – is defined by the question of “are they still alive?” So far, as far as I’m aware, this year, I’ve sent just the one card to a dead person (or so I’ve deduced from the card I’ve just received from his widow that’s missing his name). December 20, 2021


    I’ve shopped my wife for a crime she didn’t commit

    A week after shopping my wife for a crime she did commit, I’ve turned her in for something she didn’t do. I responded to a letter from the Metropolitan Police, scarily entitled Notice of Intended Prosecution, with the online equivalent of ‘not me guv, it was her’. Shortly afterwards, I realised it was, in fact, me that had done it, but the system didn’t allow me to correct my accusation. The crime was speeding on the road to my wife’s father, a journey she makes frequently. Only after telling the police that she was the culprit did I remember that I had driven that morning. This leaves us in a bit of a pickle. My wife is potentially facing two prosecutions, and having already attended two speed education courses (which clearly haven’t worked), I can only assume that she’s now facing jail time. The thought of my wife doing time for a crime I committed doesn’t bear thinking about. I’ll lose every credit I’ve ever earned for helping out with essential tasks like putting out the rubbish. In all likelihood, I, too, face imprisonment for a false declaration. It could be a bleak Christmas.

    I don’t want to downplay my guilt, but I was only driving at 24mph in a 20mph zone on an empty road early on a Sunday morning. It seems a little punitive. I was once fined in Switzerland for driving 32kph in a temporary 30kph zone. It was absurdly expensive once the hire company had added all their handling fees on top of the original penalty, but although I railed against it, I accepted it. The Swiss like their rules and are very precise. I was breaking the speed limit and so needed to be punished. But I’ve come to understand that rules are there to be broken in this country. Furthermore, they don’t necessarily apply to everyone. I would have expected that a four mph transgression is within the acceptable margin for error, but no, it seems instead that our family will be torn apart for it. December 8, 2021


    A busy man

    A glance at my calendar suggests this is a busy week, by my standards. “By my standards” is the key clause of that sentence. Nowadays, I can count the number of emails I receive each day on a single hand. A few years ago, I would have needed to be a centipede to make such a claim. (Yes, I know centipedes don’t have fingers, but you get the point.) My diary suggests a busy week simply because it contains at least one entry a day. However, closer inspection reveals less a full life than that I’m existing in an expanse of emptiness. Tuesday’s diary entry reminded me to watch a football match on TV (as if I needed reminding). No other commitments on the whole of Tuesday. Wednesday has three entries – our gardener at 8:30, put out the rubbish before 10:00 and the cleaner at 11:00. I’ve got a Waitrose delivery on Thursday, Freddie’s Flowers and Cook deliveries on Friday. The only vaguely interesting appointment is an online interview with Jonathan Franzen by the Guardian Book Club on Monday. That’s it. That’s my busy week. I’m hoping it will be quieter next week. There’s an adage that says if you want something done, ask a busy person. Well, I have to say, on that count, ask my wife. There’s no chance of it getting done if you ask me. Not with my schedule. November 24, 2021


    We will not serve you

    Is it me, or is the world grinding to a halt?

    Two weeks ago, Sainsbury’s wouldn’t let me log into our account. They had introduced a two-stage verification system but failed to activate the second step of sending me a log-in code. I opened a Waitrose account, and Sainsbury’s lost a customer of 40 years standing.

    Last week Addison Lee failed to turn up to take my daughter to the airport for her transatlantic flight. I had to drop everything to get her to Heathrow in time. I will think twice about using Addison Lee in future.

    Today, British Airways have decided they don’t want to sell me air tickets. Their Executive Club website says it’s being upgraded and will be ready by Wednesday, November 17th. Today is Wednesday, November 17th, and it’s not ready. I called them to book my tickets over the phone; the operator said she couldn’t get on to the system. She said it would be fixed by 3:00 pm. It’s now 5:00 pm, and it’s still not working. I’m considering flying easyJet instead. November 17, 2021


    Our dog’s a pussy

    And the cat’s top dog. The dog is pathetically keen to please; the cat doesn’t give a fuck. If the dog is in our way, she’ll shift position to let us through. The cat won’t. We can step over him as far as he’s concerned: it’s our problem, not his. If the cat decides to eat the dog’s food, he’ll simply push her aside. The dog then watches him with an expression that says, ‘I can’t believe this is happening to me.’ If the cat wants to initiate a fight, he’ll cuff the dog in the face with his paw. If the cat then gets bored of that fight, he’ll jump out of reach and look disdainfully at his adversary, with a slow triumphant sweep of his tail. The dog is all bark and no bite. She’ll power into the garden, yapping loudly to ward off intruders, but if any of those intruders happen to stand their ground, she’s quick to retreat. The cat’s a killer. A silent assassin, he doesn’t make a song and dance about; he just leaves the bodies of his victims out on display to show that he means business. It’s truly a dog’s life for the dog with a cat amongst the pigeons.

     

     

     

     

     

    October 21, 2021


    Beware of Greeks bearing tennis racquets

    This week I suffered my second successive defeat on a tennis court to a Greek opponent, a twentysomething who might have modelled for classical statues in earlier times. He had been pumping iron in the gym immediately before our game. He served first. I heard what sounded like a crack of a whip and felt a rush of air as a flash of yellow whizzed past my backhand side. Ace. 15 love. I’m nine months off my bus pass: How was I supposed to react to something travelling that fast?

    There should be a speed limit on serves, especially when the elderly are on the receiving end. Such a powerful serve presented me with multiple problems, not least assessing whether it had been in or out. My eyesight is ropey at the best of times. To expect it to detect whether a small rubber ball travelling at the speed of light lands an inch inside or outside the line is pure fantasy. I had to guess and hope that my opponent would trust me if I called with sufficient authority. In truth, he probably just thought that doddery geriatric is also blind as a bat.

    If I somehow got my racquet in the path of the missile, it was in danger of being ripped from my hand. If, against all odds, I managed to hold on to my racquet and connect with the ball, then it was a complete lottery as to where it would end up. In the unlikely event it landed back in court, it would inevitably only be to sit up nicely for my opponent to smash back with equal or greater ferocity.

    Could this be punishment for those marbles? I resolved to steer clear of tennis racquet wielding Greeks in future. September 30, 2021


    Skunk

    At some point last year, I noticed my farts no longer smelt. I can’t tell you how liberating this discovery was: an odourless fart opens so many doors. It frees a man to quietly let out a little air every so often, wherever he may be and whomever he may be with. Odourless farts are the invisibility cloak of the gaseous world.

    The first inkling that I may have made a terrible mistake came from the dog. On one occasion, shortly after I had released an unwanted packet of intestinal gas, she sat bolt upright, nose twitching, with a look of great concern. She then promptly vacated the room. Nothing, not even her favourite treats, could coax her back in. This incident prompted me to remember that I had lost my sense of smell a few months earlier. (Nothing to do with Covid, just yet another bodily function shutting down.) A terrifying realisation then struck me: My farts probably hadn’t lost their smell after all. It was just me that couldn’t smell them.

    It occurred to me that the lack of human contact I had experienced over the past year might not, as I had previously thought, been the natural solitude of a writer’s existence during lockdown, but more to do with toxic fumes. September 21, 2021


    Altitude sickness

    I knew I was getting too close to the sun. I recently joined Chelsea’s Harbour Club and signed up to their tennis ladder of seventy-four players. After a handful of surprisingly comfortable wins, I rose to the giddy heights of fourth position. However, I could feel the wax on my wings beginning to loosen.

    This morning my heady ascent ended with a crushing defeat. I started well enough by winning the first three games and should have stopped then. Instead, I continued and only won one more game out of the next thirteen. My opponent commented that I must be twenty years older than him. I think he was trying to say I was doing well for my age; either that or he was successfully messing with my mind. I am actually twenty-nine years older, but it felt like at least fifty when he made that observation.

    I’ve dropped four places on the ladder, but with the wax now freely flowing, I fear I could be entering a similar downward spiral to the one that did for Icarus. August 29, 2021


    In treatment

    As a sucker for a good screen therapist – not least the sublime Dr Melfi in The Sopranos – I’m delighted that In Treatment has returned after a twelve-year hiatus. It’s had a makeover. The older white male therapist (Gabriel Byrne) has become middle-aged, black and female (Uzo Aduba). The secluded Baltimore cottage that is the treatment room has become a glitzy designer home in the Los Angeles hills. The patients are more extreme. The most significant difference, though, is the ads. I saw the previous series on ad-free HBO. This time I’m watching it on Sky Atlantic, where ad breaks have been clumsily inserted into the middle of something not designed for such interruption. Imagine being in the middle of an intense therapy session – tentatively exposing all your neuroses to scrutiny – when suddenly the door bursts open and a stream of noisy commercial characters parade loudly around the room shouting, ‘look at me, look at me’. It somewhat breaks the spell. July 20, 2021


    Caffeinated

    People tend to assume I’m a coffee connoisseur simply because I drink industrial quantities of the stuff. But quantity shouldn’t be mistaken for quality – I drink Gold Blend instant and cappuccinos; ergo, I’m not a connoisseur.

    However, I do know my cappuccino from my latte, something that seems to be beyond the wit of most coffee places. Order a cappuccino, and nine times out of ten, you’ll end with a latte. I always ask for a dry cappuccino; to make the point I want the milk to be foamed rather than simply warm. (If I were Cresta Bear, I would say – ‘Make it frothy man’.) They take my order without question and return a wet latte. It’s as if my “dry” is silent, and despite my desire for a cappuccino, they know what I really want is a latte. It’s enough to turn you to drink. June 25, 2021


    I read the news today

    Oh boy.

    A therapist will advise that to affect a change in a relationship; you need to change yourself rather than try to change the other party. It’s beginning to dawn on me that rather than wait for the world around me to become less crazy, it’s me who needs to change.

    I need to forsake The Guardian for The Telegraph, start believing in British exceptionalism and learn to revere statues and our imperialist past. I must become less tolerant of anyone who happens to have been born elsewhere, find clever ways to avoid paying tax (because who wants to live in a more equal and just society?), trust our government and love our leader.

    Then, and only then, will I be aligned with the world in which I live. The daily news will be a pleasurable affirmation of all my beliefs rather than the horror show it currently is.

    ‘Simples’, as Alexander Orlov would say. June 8, 2021


    Honey, I’ve lost my sense of humour

    “If in doubt, chuck it” is my motto. I’ll often throw away something prematurely, but I can forgive myself by accepting it’s just collateral damage, a fair price for a life free from junk. It’s slightly more problematic when I unwittingly throw one of my wife’s treasured possessions, but at least the doghouse is clutter-free.

    At the beginning of this year, I set myself the target of reducing myself by 6.4%. I’ve smashed that in less than six months and am already only 92.7% of the man I was in January. However, I’m now worried that I might have inadvertently disposed of a part of me that I didn’t want to lose. I fear I might have thrown away my sense of humour. What do you think? Is this entry funny? It’s not. Like that guy in Newport who threw away his hard drive containing £210m worth of bitcoin, I know there’s no chance of getting it back. May 25, 2021


    Boiling frog

    It’s said that if you drop a frog in hot water, it will jump out immediately. If, however, you put it in cold water and then bring that water slowly to boil, the frog won’t notice that it’s being boiled to death. This might be apocryphal – there are plenty to say that frogs aren’t that stupid, but nonetheless, it seems to me this is what is happening to us today. Things are hotting up, glaciers are melting, and our changing climate is turning us all mad. What other possible explanation could there be for Paul Dacre being seriously considered for the Ofcom chair or Liz Cheney becoming the only reasonable Republican in the room? Either the world’s going mad, or it’s me. May 12, 2021


    Disappointment

    I was reminded this weekend why I left my parental home. I needed to find myself a better local football team.

    With my original team Cambridge United on the verge of promotion, I was excited to find I could watch their games online for £10. I’ve witnessed one draw, two defeats and now that odds-on promotion place is somewhat more in the balance. Their two losses have been against teams in the bottom half with nothing to play for. This weekend’s opponents, Harrogate, with their eye on their FA Trophy game on Monday, made eight changes. The mighty ‘U’s were three down in 20 minutes after some comedy defending. They clawed back to 4-4 only to concede another and lose 5-4.

    They still only need to get a draw from their last game to secure promotion. That game is at home to bottom-of-the-table already-relegated Grimsby Town. As anyone familiar with the slings and arrows of following a football team will know, there can only be one outcome. Sadly, the writing is already on the wall. May 1, 2021


    Brittle

    As I threw my tennis racquet to the ground in anger last week, a couple of thoughts crossed my mind. The first was that I hadn’t done this since I was fifteen years old. The second thought wasn’t so much a thought as an image from the film The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.  My takeout from that movie was that, as we become old and decrepit, we return to an infantile state of helplessness. My temper tantrum indicates that I’ve reached the point on the journey of life where I’m fifteen again. (This, incidentally, means I can now predict the year of my eventual demise with a reasonable degree of certainty as 2036.) The racquets I used to throw around courts were made of wood and considerably more resilient than the Babolat I now use. Like its owner, the Babolat has a certain brittleness which means it cracks when chucked on the ground. Perhaps I should replace it with a wooden one. If I’m going to lose, I might as well do so with a tool that I can blame. April 22, 2021


    It doesn’t matter

    I’m having a terrible Fantasy Football season. I’m currently 1,534,395 places worse off than I was last season. I’m in lowly fifth place in the company league I have topped in the previous two seasons. I’m trying to tell myself that it doesn’t matter, but it does. It matters a lot. I’ve dropped to the second division of the Wandsworth Local League tennis, having been a fixture in division one for the past few years. I’ve lost three of my six games. My opponents may be better players than me and thirty years younger, but that’s no excuse. They say it’s the taking part that counts, but that’s rubbish. I’m on a losing streak in Words With Friends. Like Donald Trump, I’m a loser. That matters. April 16, 2021


    Cold

    Last week I searched ‘why is it so fucking cold’. Google offered up a one minute film from the BBC that featured a cup of tea to represent the Arctic airflow. The gist of it was that the tea is being stirred slowly, which somehow causes it to reverse direction. In turn, this has had the effect of replacing mild westerly winds with cold easterlies from Siberia. That’s why it’s so fucking cold. Instead of our usual balmy spring afternoons, we’re stuck in what feels like a scene from Ice Station Zebra. April 12, 2021


    Unforgotten

    The current series of Unforgotten is about a cold case crime that occurred on March 30, 1990. That date sounds familiar, I thought. Eventually, it came to me. Our wedding anniversary! The cogs continued to whirr. We got married on the day of the crime. No, Jay was born a year after our wedding, and he was born in 1992. It must have been a year later. We got married on March 30, 1991. What year are we in now? 2021. Thirty years on from 1991. Fuck, it must be our thirtieth wedding anniversary next week. I must remember to tell the wife. March 28, 2021


    Humble beginnings

    Today, Cambridge United returned to the top of Division 2 with a last-minute winner away at Carlisle. It might seem premature to be posting this before the end of the season, but as a follower of the “U’s” for fifty years, I’ve learnt to celebrate success when it happens. Such moments are fleeting. It’s been a long journey to the top for Cambridge United’s manager, Mark Bonner. Two decades ago he started at the bottom rung as coach of United’s under-eights team. March 27, 2021


    War and peace

    Cleo, our three-year-old cavapoo, has one purpose in life: to rid the world, or at least her world, of cats. She guards her territory ferociously, especially after eating poodle biscuits (the canine equivalent of crack cocaine – highly addictive and producing an energy rush and edginess). High on poodle biscuits, our increasingly paranoid cavapoo has recently started barking manically at imaginary cats on an empty garden wall. Better safe than sorry.

    Imagine, if you will, Cleo’s reaction when a kitten arrived in her house last November. She wanted to kill it. And if she couldn’t kill it, she wanted it out. The kitten was untroubled by his highly excitable housemate. He knew he could always outwit the dog and jump out of reach. Initially, he stayed at the top of the house where she wasn’t allowed before increasingly coming downstairs to provoke her. His favourite game was to sit just out of her reach and then punch her on the nose whenever she jumped up at him. It drove Cleo insane with rage.

    This continued for two months. And, then, all of a sudden, it stopped. Cleo did a 180-degree about-turn and decided that Spout, the cat, was now her new best friend. They are now inseparable and can often be found sharing a hit of poodle biscuits. March 12, 2021


    Standing tall

    I need to lose 6.5% of myself. The 6.5% that grew freely during the first and second lockdowns, thriving on my daughter’s cooking and generally slothful state. Finding it a lot harder to contract than to expand, it has occurred to me that there are two ways to reduce one’s Body Mass Index. The two determinants of B.M.I. are weight and height. I’m thinking it may be easier to grow a few centimetres than to lose a couple of kilos. Forget the diet, the personal training and the runs around the common; I’m going to commit to some serious stretching instead. All that’s needed is to extend myself by two or three centimetres. March 1, 2021


    Creature of habit

    Every day without fail, our dog demands its dinner at 6:00 pm on the dot. How does it know it’s 6:00 pm? Similarly, I’m now waking every day at precisely 7:40 am. Not a minute before, nor a minute later. I don’t know why my internal clock has chosen this time. Ideally, I would prefer to stay asleep until 8:00 am, but it seems I don’t have a say. The routine of lockdown has fixed it, and I’ve mislaid the instructions to re-programme myself. February 28, 2021


    Euphoria

    Cambridge United are playing Mansfield Town today, which brings back memories of one of the most exciting days of my life. Just under forty-seven years ago, on 28th April 1973, my father took me to the Abbey Stadium for the season’s final game. The stakes were high; whoever won between Cambridge United and Mansfield Town would win promotion from the old Division Four. A draw would mean both sides would miss out, and Newport County would go up in their place. Cambridge fell behind twice, but both times pulled back to level the game. And then, with less than twenty minutes left, Ronnie Walton scored a blistering winner. Cambridge were up to the Third Division for the first time in their history. My passion for the game was cemented there and then. February 20, 2021


    Packed

    The other week we generated eighteen bags of trash, giving lie to my perception that we live a minimalist life. There are only three of us, so nearly one sack of rubbish each every single day. I blame the packaging industry. We recently took delivery of a box so large that we could hardly get it through our front door. At a guess, it had the capacity of a cubic meter. Deep inside were two small terracotta pots. The rest of the box was filled with tightly compressed paper. Five large bin bags of the stuff. Everything is overpacked and almost impossible to penetrate. I nearly took my finger off last week trying to open my vacuum-packed smoked cod. It’s a good job we live in a world of infinite resources. February 17, 2021


    Never was so much destroyed for so many by so few

    A number of small businesses are being forced to move operations to Europe in order to avoid the crippling effects of Brexit. This business owner expressed it nicely when he said,  ‘to adapt a phrase from our most famous leader – never in the field of British business has so much been destroyed for so many, by so few.’ February 15, 2021


    What to do in third lockdown #2

    Choose what colour socks to wear. I have fifteen different coloured pairs. Today I’ve chosen a pink pair to celebrate my wife’s birthday. Depending on how much wine I consume this evening, tomorrow might call for something less vibrant. February 11, 2021


    Cushions come those that wait

    Willow and Hall subscribe to the philosophy that good things come to those that wait. They made us wait 152 days for a cushion we ordered back in September. It’s a good cushion, but not that good. Willow and Hall also believe in building suspense through opaque or non-existent communication. Keep the customer on his toes by not telling him what’s going on. The one thing they don’t appear to believe in, though, is customer service. February 4, 2021


    Cutlery segmentation

    There are certain things in life that, on discovery, seem so obvious that it’s difficult to believe you didn’t know about them before. One such thing is the technique of separating cutlery by section in the washing machine, so that all the knives are together in one compartment, the spoons in another, etc. etc. It transforms the task of unloading the dishwasher. I regard myself as something of a master dishwasher loader, turning my nose up at those who mix their plates and mugs up or don’t rinse particularly dirty dishes before putting them in. But I never knew the technique of cutlery segmentation. I thought I had worked it out all by myself during the first lockdown and was thinking about patenting the process when my wife told me she had been using it for years. Wives can be clever like that. January 28, 2021


    Facelift

    I was fifteen years old when the Pompidou Centre opened in 1977. I was fascinated by the idea of an inside-out building, although, to my shame, I’ve never visited it. Now they’re going to close it down for four years because it’s showing signs of ageing and needs renovation. I too am ageing and in need of renovation, but no one’s talking about shutting me down and giving me a €100m facelift. I wonder how you lift the face of an inside-out building. January 28, 2021


    Double vision

    We watched a documentary about Princess Margaret last week. Near the end, my daughter said we’d already seen it a couple of years ago. I have no recollection of this, although a scene involving the Princess cavorting with Peter Sellars seemed vaguely familiar. Similarly, my wife and I are currently watching the first series of The Bay. I’m pretty sure I haven’t seen it before, other than that a key scene in the first episode has a familiar ring. Perhaps I’ve seen the whole series after all. Recently, I bought a film that I’ve wanted to watch for some time – The Wife. Ten minutes in, I remembered I had already seen it. There’s so much good new stuff (67 films, 32 documentaries, 62 TV dramas are currently on my to-watch list) that I don’t want to waste time by re-watching things I’ve already seen. If I can’t remember what I’ve seen, then the amount of stuff to watch increases exponentially. Is it a waste of time to watch something again if I can’t remember having already seen it? How will I ever get through my list of new stuff if I get stuck on an infinite loop watching the same old thing repeatedly? Does it matter?  January 14, 2021


    What to do in third lockdown

    Contemplate whether there is further room for improvement in the re-organised cutlery drawer, with adjustable dividers, that was the main achievement of first lockdown. January 7, 2021


    Georgia on my mind

    January 6, 2021


    Lockdown

    January 5, 2021


    Little Englander

    Malheureusement, Je ne suis plus un Européen. As of today, I am a Little Englander. Not the global citizen I like to think of myself as, but part of an island nation that, like it or not, is best personified by Nigel Farage. C’est dommage. January 1, 2021


    Best coffee in the world

    This morning I had the best coffee in the world. It was the product of an automatic coffee dispenser in the Wandsworth BUPA centre. Truth is it wasn’t top quality, but as I hadn’t been allowed to have any caffeine before my medical, it was my first coffee of the day and tasted wonderful for it. I really needed something stronger. A double whisky might have done the trick. I had just learnt the folly of scheduling my annual BUPA medical in the week after Christmas in a lockdown year. If not quite twice the man I was a year ago, there is certainly more of me and consequently my metrics have gone the wrong way. December 30, 2020


    Know thyself

    Being stuck at home for most of the year has allowed me to get to know myself better. With the help of Google, I’ve self-diagnosed myself as having misophonia, partial anomosia, presbyopia, tinnitus and cabin fever. Thankfully though, not hypochondria. My wife offered a further diagnosis – grumpiness – but neither is that a medical condition nor is she a physician and so we can safely discount it. December 19, 2020


    The cost of replacing a light bulb

    How much does it cost to replace a light bulb? The answer according to Britannia is £305 + labour. Their website says ‘we believe in a design you can see’. So they believe in illumination. But not so much as to stock replacement light units for some of their older models. If you have the misfortune to own an older Britannia cooker, the only way to fix a faulty light is to replace the whole extractor hood. Talk about using a hammer to crack a nut. Their website goes on to say they believe in craftsmanship you can feel. That is undoubtedly true. Those familiar with a Britannia cooker will know that the metallic temperature knobs are positioned directly above the oven. Touch these when the Sunday roast is on, and you’ll certainly feel it, although for a short while thereafter you’ll have no feeling whatsoever in your fingertips. How long does it take Britannia to respond to a customer who wants to repair or replace a broken cooker light? Eight months. The website says ‘we believe in reliability you can count on’. I wonder what they mean by that. November 20, 2020


    I must be dead

    All my then five-year-old daughter knew about allergies was that they meant she couldn’t have the cat that she really wanted. Her father was allergic to them. Reluctantly she accepted this state of affairs, but not without a perfectly reasonable request, ’Mummy, when Daddy dies can we get a cat?’ Eighteen years later, she has given up waiting and this week a shorthaired silver tabby kitten called Sprout has joined our household. November 5, 2020


    Mad Women

    The excellent TV series Mrs America has been described as a companion piece for Mad Men on account of their similar style and evocation of 1960s America. I momentarily thought that Mad Women might have been a better title, but quickly dismissed it as a bad idea. It’s not so much that Mrs America had nothing to do with Madison Avenue, but that mad has a different meaning when applied to women than it does for men. Other than when referring to the insane, there can be a roguish element to a mad man, but to call a woman mad is always derogatory. It’s enough to make you mad. October 9, 2020


    Green Fingers Gravatt

    Stranded in London because of Covid, with my wife in New York, and feeling a degree of responsibility for the garden that she has carefully cultivated over the years, I decided I needed to buy some plants to fill our empty vegetable patch. (I might mow the lawn, but there’s no way I’m going to go all Good Life and become self-sufficient by growing my own vegetables when Sainsbury’s sell them.) My wife suggested geraniums might do the trick. I measured the space and, with the help of Google, worked out that 8 plants would be sufficient. So far so good. Then it went wrong. I’m not quite sure how, but I ended up buying 366 geranium plants and now our garden is carpeted with them. August 2020


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The Better Brother
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The Better Brother

The Better Brother

Special offer. Free copies.
I’m giving away a limited number of free copies ofThe Better Brother. If you would like one, simply email me at simongravatt@mac to request a copy

The Better Brother is a dark comedy on the escalating conflict between two brothers who inherit their family funeral business.

‘Your novel is terrific. It’s intelligent, well written, funny and compelling.’ Tim Lott, Author and Writing Coach

‘I loved your book! It reminded me of Jonathan Coe – a gripping and easy-to-read story on the surface with lots of other deeper questions slipped in almost subliminally.’ Jamie Keenan, Book Cover Designer

‘Brilliant. A page-turning ripping yarn, provincial England’s answer to Succession complete with some very funny moments. Hugely enjoyable. Review on Amazon

‘Witty, fast paced, couldn’t put it down. This is a great story in the true sense of the word. Part comedy, part mystery, part philosophy, it is a rollicking life affirming roller coaster. Well written and in turn funny sad and wise. Great choice for your next weekend or holiday if you want to forget about everything!’ Review on Amazon

‘I opened The Better Brother as my flight to New York took off and finished it in the queue for customs! I couldn’t put it down, it had so many twists and turns and made me laugh out loud! I loved it’ Michelle Blayney

‘Betrayal, resentment, power games and cut-throat cunning – this darkly comic and compelling debut takes sibling rivalry to a whole new level. Exploring deep-rooted family rifts and the perils of flying a little too close to the sun, this cautionary tale about two feuding brothers is emotionally charged from beginning to end …This story is about our relationships with our family. How what happens to us in our childhood can shape us for the good or the bad. And how sometimes we can only start to fix what is broken when we’re ready. The Better Brother is dotted with platitudes and puns – and some proper laugh out loud moments – but it’s also a novel that asks questions of us all. How far we’re prepared to go, and what risks we’re prepared to take for money and power. A clever, witty, insightful read.’ LindsayQuayle, Lovereading


Extracts:

  1. Chapter One – Presumed Dead

Chapter One – Presumed Dead

North London. June 1998. 

Michael was halfway through his ham and cheese sandwich when the phone rang. The ringtone indicated an external call. ‘Hello, this is Michael Merriweather. How can I help you?’

‘Oh, thank goodness I’ve found you.’ The agitated voice sounded familiar, but Michael couldn’t place it.

‘I’m sorry, but who is this?’

‘This is Monica. Monica of Merriweather’s. You remember me, don’t you?’

What a ridiculous question thought Michael. Of course he remembered Monica. He had known her all his life. ‘Hello Monica, why are you calling me at work?’ It was unsettling; having a voice from his past, a past he was trying to forget, intrude like this.

‘It’s your father, Michael. I’m so sorry to tell you this, but we think he’s dead.’

Think? How can you think someone’s dead?

Monica continued without pause. ‘He’s been cremated.’

‘Cremated?’ The call was making no sense. ‘Already?’

Monica started to say something, but Michael wasn’t listening. ‘Why wasn’t I invited?’

There was a pause at the other end of the line. ‘What do you mean?’

Michael could only focus on the cremation. ‘What I mean,’ he felt the anger well up inside him, ‘is why wasn’t I invited to the cremation? My Dad’s not a bloody Hindu.’ Michael noticed a few heads turn in his open-plan office. He had momentarily forgotten he was at work.

‘I know your Dad’s not Hindu,’ said Monica hesitatingly, ‘what’s that got to do with it?’

‘It means he doesn’t need to be cremated within twenty-four hours.’ Michael said quietly, ‘you, of all people, should know that.’

‘Michael, you’re upset. I’m sorry I’m not explaining this very…’

Michael cut her off, ‘and anyway, what do you mean you think he’s dead? How can you think someone’s dead? Either they’re dead, or they’re not. It’s a binary thing.’

‘Michael, I’m sorry. Please let me explain. It seems he may have cremated himself.’


Alison Gray
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Alison Gray

Alison Gray

I’ve started to write the story of a woman who competes, and triumphs, in a man’s world.

Alison Gray, my grandmother, had no previous business experience when she took over the family sports firm after her second husband’s death in 1938.

She overcame the twin challenges of running a business during the war and the chauvinism of the sports industry to lay the foundations for the current success of the firm, before her own untimely death in 1950.

The book I’m writing is historical fiction inspired by her and based around key events in her life between 1938 to 1945. I’ve included here a couple of extracts from an early rough draft.


Extracts:

  1. The Widow
  2. Family Portrait

The Widow

Coton. March 1938

The morning they buried her husband, Alison Gray was sitting quietly by herself on a low stone wall in a graveyard twelve miles away. She wasn’t sure why she was there, other than it had seemed as good a place as any to pay her last respects. Now that she was there Alison realised she didn’t want to say goodbye. How could she, when Douglas wasn’t there to hear her? She got up and walked over to the memorial for the seventeen villagers lost in the Great War. She remembered the time when she and Douglas had stood in front of it, hand-in-hand shortly after becoming man and wife. Douglas had commented then how he could easily have ended up immortalised in stone like those young men, rather than survive the war to be there alongside his new wife. Alison remembered how happy she had felt on that day. But now, standing in the very same spot eight years later, Alison was all alone. She flexed her fingers as if to remember his hand in hers, but there was nothing there.

Her solitude was disturbed by the vicar who had made a short detour from the village green to greet his heavily pregnant parishioner. ‘Good morning, Mrs Gray.’

‘Good morning, Vicar.’ There was a flatness in her response; she didn’t want company.

‘Please forgive me for interrupting your thoughts. I just wanted to check you’re okay.’

‘I’ve had better days. It’s Douglas’s funeral today.’

The vicar put his hand to his mouth. ‘Of course, I’m sorry. I should’ve remembered. Look, do you want to come into the church where you can sit down?’

‘Thank you, but no, I like it here. I wish Douglas could have been buried in this graveyard.’ She had also wanted to have been married there; in their local church rather than a London registry office. But that was a non-starter because, in the eyes of the Church, she was a sinner. ‘What kind of God teaches that you should stay with a man who beats you?’ she had railed against her mother at the time. Her mother had sympathised with her but said it was the way of the world and she should be grateful that she had found a good man second time round.

The vicar’s curiosity got the better of him.’ Forgive me for asking, but why aren’t you at Douglas’s funeral?’

Alison sighed. ‘I’m really not sure.’ The vicar waited a few seconds for Alison to elaborate, before taking her silence as his cue to leave her in peace. Alison remained in the graveyard for few more minutes before returning up the gentle incline of Madingley Hill and through the fields back home.


Family Portrait

Cambridge. September 30, 1938.

All the talk that morning was of another possible war with Germany, but Alison had more pressing concerns on her mind. She wasn’t entirely sure what had compelled her to organise a family portrait six months after losing her husband, but it was something to do with wanting to mark the start of her new life and record the moment for her children. Not that her children had any appreciation that this was a significant occasion. They didn’t even know their father was dead. As they entered the small photography studio, her eldest son William, upon seeing all the family portraits on display turned to her and said, ‘why’s Daddy not with us?’

‘I’ve told you already, Billums, Daddy’s gone away.’

‘Where’s he gone?’

‘Oh, just somewhere. He’ll be back one day.’

‘But I want him now.’ William started to raise his voice. ‘He needs to be here. All the other daddies are here.’ William gesticulated at all the complete families looking down from the wall of the studio wall.

William’s younger brother, John, never one to miss an opportunity to cause a commotion, joined in, ‘I want my Daddy.’

’Shush Boys. He’s not here, and that’s the end of it.’ They didn’t need to know the truth, not yet anyway. There’ll be a time for that. Alison had more than enough on her plate right now to be bothered with explaining to her two young sons that their forty-seven-year-old father had died of cancer and was never coming back. ‘Billums, I need you to be on best behaviour. Now that Daddy’s not here, you’re the biggest boy.’

‘That’s not fair. I want to be the biggest boy.’ John stamped his foot.

‘You’re both my big boys.’ Alison turned and gave William a knowing wink as she said this, to reassure him that she knew he was, in fact, the biggest boy. The six-year-old beamed at the tacit acknowledgement that he was entrusted to take his father’s place and Alison knew she had pacified him. ‘You both need to be on best behaviour for this photo. We want Daddy to be proud of us. And anyway, you need to set a good example to your sister.’ Alison was relieved that her baby daughter, Valerie, had remained fast asleep in her pram as she had negotiated the peace with her two young sons.

That was the way of Alison. She generally got her way through judicious application of charm and flattery, especially with men. But in equal measure, she also took no-nonsense and was always quick to crush any dissent. William and John had not only got the message that they had no option but to behave, but they were also motivated to live up to the responsibility that had been bestowed on them.

Alison’s entreaty that they needed to make her dead husband proud of them was pure manipulation. She didn’t for one minute believe Douglas was looking down at them. Quite the opposite, she felt entirely alone. Her beloved mother and confidant, whom Alison always turned to in times of distress, had been dead for seven years now. She had her brothers and sisters, of course, and a large circle of supportive friends, but for the first time in her life, she felt the burden of responsibility was hers to bear by herself. In time her children would grow to stand alongside her, and she was determined to ensure that the family should emerge all the stronger from this tragedy, but, while they were still so young, Alison alone was their protector. From now on, everything she did was going to be for them.

The photographer had taken hundreds of family portraits, but none quite like this: a widow cradling her baby, two young sons at either side. It made for a striking image: the light pink dress of the baby set against the black of her mother in mourning. She seemed so vulnerable; the baby, not the mother. The widow appeared anything but.

It was the baby’s fluffy white socks that made the scene so poignant. An unremarkable item of clothing – something the photographer saw almost every day – but they were the detail that meant he could recall the picture in his mind’s eye for weeks afterwards without even looking at the photograph he had taken.

As the photographer organised the group and distracted the boys with lame jokes, impersonations and the odd candy, Alison let her mind drift. Her main concern was what to do with her husband’s business. Her husband’s will set up a trust that provided some support for her and the children, but not enough for her to maintain their current lifestyle. It irked her that Coton Court, their family home, was now under the auspices of the trustees, given it was her mother who had bought it in the first place and then passed it on to Douglas and Alison when they married. It should rightfully be hers, but somehow it had ended up as one of her husband’s assets. She had often joked to Douglas that he only married her because of Coton Court. He had been a thirty-seven-year-old bachelor living in his mother’s home when they met. He, in turn, had joked that she only married him for his dogs. ‘What on earth makes you think I have any interest in greyhounds?’, she had said gaily, ‘you can’t sit on them.’ Alison’s passion was horses. She did concede to Douglas that greyhounds, like horses, could be raced, but there the similarity ended, and they were certainly not the basis for the selection of her second husband.

Douglas’s business was a sports firm. It was ironic really, given that both of them were so passionate about sport, that the company specialised in one that didn’t particularly interest either of them. ‘Why the devil couldn’t your grandfather have been a championship jockey rather than the world racquets champion?’ she teased him. ‘You would have been so much more eligible if you manufactured riding equipment rather than wooden racquets.’ Douglas’s dry retort that he was surprised to hear her say that given how it had worked out with that jockey. It was an unintentional crossing of the line. Alison’s first husband was never usually mentioned, but that little slip showed that he still inhabited Douglas’s thoughts.

But now Douglas was dead, and she was left was his racquets firm or at least part of it. The sensible course of action would be to sell it. That’s what everyone was telling Alison to do. But that advice was giving her pause for thought; perhaps she should do the opposite. Alison had never been one to do as she was told.


Fact and Fiction

Fact and Fiction includes a collection of pieces inspired by random bits of the world as I find it.

A Painfully True Story is a factual account of what happened when a man left his passport on a train.

The Pitch, an outtake from The Better Brother, draws loosely from my experience of the advertising industry. Bumble is a political satire inspired some dodgy calls in a tennis match I recently lost (only because of the dodgy calls, of course).

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Fact and Fiction

Becoming a writer

A Painfully True Story

The Pitch

Bumble


Confessions of an eleven-year-old

I was eleven years old when Confessions of a Window Cleaner first got me thinking about becoming a writer. It was less the book that interested me than the man who wrote it. Timothy Lea was the pseudonym of Christopher Wood, who lived in our village and whose two boys went to the same school as me. I remember him as a big bearded man in a long black leather coat who made his presence heard on the touchline of school soccer matches. He was quite unlike all the other parents at our Cambridge prep school and not just because he had the time to come and watch the games. None of the other fathers, to my knowledge, had a day job writing smutty sexual stories.

He had written his first novel while commuting on the train to his London advertising job. Its success enabled him to give up advertising and write a further eighteen confessions books, including classics such as Confessions of a Plumber's Mate. Like us, the Woods lived in Mill House; unlike ours, their's was a proper mill with a water wheel. Christopher Wood wrote a couple of James Bond screenplays and left the village to become a tax exile in the South of France.

I hadn’t, at that point, considered writing as a career option – my sights were set on professional football – but I registered, from Christopher Wood's example, that there certain benefits to be had from a writer's life: Wealth, beautiful house, attractive wife, and – most importantly – time to watch football.

Influences

The second writer to pique my interest was a friend of my parents called Sarah Harrison. She wrote a bestseller called Flowers in the Field, but that was much less interesting to me than her follow-up novel. Hot Breath was about a woman who embarked on a passionate affair with her local Greek GP. Our village at the time, rather unusually, had an Italian GP, and many of the characters in Sarah's novel bore a striking resemblance to people we knew. I couldn't help wondering what our GP, or more to the point, his wife, made of it all. Or, indeed, Mr Harrison.

A few years earlier, when travelling around America as an eighteen-year-old, I had found myself in the back of a Lincoln Continental Convertible with my friend Andrew and two women old enough to be our mothers. In the back of that car, caressed by the warm Massachusetts air and with nothing between me and the cloudless sky, it struck me that I wanted to be a paperback writer. It was a daydreamy kind of thought rather than a serious aspiration and was, undoubtedly, influenced by the book I was reading at the time – The World According to Garp. Mind you, as well as wanting to be a writer, Garp also had ambitions to become a professional wrestler, which, I have to say, was not something that featured in my daydreams that afternoon.

A tiny seed had been planted in my mind a couple of years before by J.R.R. Tolkien's grandson. He said of me, 'he's a poet but doesn't know it.' I certainly didn't. I was an academic underachiever whose proudest claim was to be awarded every grade possible at O'Level, including an X. My single A grade came in English Literature, thanks, in part, to a paper marked internally by our Head of English, Michael Tolkien. I got the highest mark in our year, which was – quite frankly – astonishing. Michael Tolkien never taught me; as head of the department, he didn't trouble himself with lower ability students like myself. His only experience of me came through this paper, and on the back of it, he pronounced me to be a poet. He was undoubtedly mistaken, not least because poetry was about as attractive a career option to me as professional wrestling. But who was I to disagree if someone with the genes of one of the world's greatest-ever writers thought there was poetry in me?

A plan for life

All these random formative thoughts coalesced when sitting in amongst the Hindu temples of Khajuraho, smoking dope with my friend Andrew and formulating our life plans. Mine was to spend fifteen years in advertising, build my own business in my forties and then become a writer in my fifties. I envisaged that my business would be successful enough to fund my writing. I'm not sure if it was the quality of the weed we were smoking or divine Hindu inspiration, but it was a pretty damn good plan I came up with that day. It has determined the course of my life.

At some point, I finessed my plan to specify I would write a novel that made people laugh. I envisioned seeing a stranger on the tube chuckling over my book. (I didn't have the foresight to realise that by the time my book came out, I wouldn’t be travelling by tube.)

Seduced by trappings

A press advertisement for an IBM laptop confirmed I was on the right track. It showed an open laptop on a veranda with a beautiful early evening view. The understated headline read "John Grisham's pad." If this was what a writer's office was like, I had no doubt that’s where I wanted to be.

You may have noticed that my interest in becoming a writer had everything to do with the trappings of a writer's life and little to do with the act of writing. I once felt quite jealous when a colleague won a short-story competition and gave up his job to focus on a writing career. But, despite his example, it still didn't occur to me that if I wanted to be a writer, I should start writing.

Pen to paper

I read a review of David Lodge's novel Nice Work, which observed that very few novels are set in the business world, and next to none of them are humorous. So I decided to capitalise on this gap in the market and write a story about a family business. I had long been intrigued by my two uncles, who ran a successful family firm despite their mutual antipathy. It occurred to me that there could be comic potential in a story about two brothers in a family firm who hated each other. Moreover, I thought there might be some humour to be had in making it a funeral business. 

I came up with what I considered to be a great opening line – "I was conceived in a coffin; this gave me a certain outlook on life." Although a good fifteen years ahead of plan, this line kick-started me into action. The trouble was I had no idea what I was doing: I didn't have a plot and hadn't thought about my characters. I quickly ran out of steam.

The final nail in the coffin, so to speak, came when I learnt that Alan Ball – who had just won an Oscar for the brilliant American Beauty – had written a new darkly comic TV series about two brothers who inherit their family funeral business. As good as Michael Tolkien thought my writing was, there was no way I could compete with Alan Ball. To this day, Six Feet Under remains my all-time favourite TV series.

I filed away my scribblings and, reverting to plan, started a business instead.

Written in the plan

My first business wasn't a great success, but it did allow me to write a couple of business books. These didn't make anyone laugh – at least I hope they didn’t – but they gave me the confidence that I could at least complete a book. 

In 2004 we moved to the States. I began to write more regularly with my monthly emails from America, the thoughts of an Englishman trying to make sense of America. Returning home three years later, this evolved into a blog – Meanderings of a Middle Aged Man on a Bicycle – the musings of a man trying to make sense of the world in which he found himself.

Much to my great surprise, my second business did rather well. There is no explanation for this other than it was written in the plan. It grew to employ over ninety people, which meant I eventually became superfluous and found myself with time on my hands. The other benefit of this venture was that my partner and I disagreed on practically everything, which gave me firsthand experience of workplace conflict that I could draw from when creating a story about two business owners who didn't see eye-to-eye.

Just fine

Having pulled back from my business, I began to wonder what I might do with all the extra time. I remembered my life plan. By then, I was fifty-seven and a half years old; I needed to get on with my first novel to meet my earlier commitment. I signed up for a three-hour workshop at the Guardian – A Beginner's Guide to Becoming a Novelist. Those three hours taught me everything I needed to know: how to go about my writing day, structure a plot, develop believable characters, and get feedback. By the end of the morning, I knew how to write my book.

One of the many invaluable pieces of advice I took from the workshop was that giving feedback on a manuscript is a professional job, best done by those who are qualified to do so. Tim Lott, who ran the workshop, recommended not seeking feedback from anyone until the manuscript is complete and then, when it's ready, only get someone who knows what they are doing to appraise it. Whatever you do, he said, think twice before sharing your work-in-progress with your friends and family.

I took his advice on board and, fending off my friends and family, didn't share a word with anyone until it was complete twelve months later. I then contacted Tim Lott to ask if he might be prepared to appraise my manuscript. He asked to see a few paragraphs to assess my writing. This was unnerving. What if he says it’s not up to scratch?  

The next day I heard back from him. 'Your writing seems fine,' he wrote. Fine? Only fine?

Moment of truth

I sent Tim my manuscript. I had no idea if what I had written was any good; I hadn't shared it with anyone. The first person to pass judgement on it was going to be an award-winning writer and celebrated writing coach. I suddenly realised quite how much was at stake. What if he pats me on the back for the effort and asks what made me think I could become a novelist? I was reminded of waiting for my O-level results. (They often say the waiting is the worst part, but that wasn't the case with my O-level results. The waiting wasn't the problem then; it was the results that were the problem.) 

Tim's email arrived.

The tension as I clicked on it felt like the final kick of a penalty shoot-out. And the relief as I read it replicated the feeling of the ball hitting the back of the net and knowing your team had won. (I should add that, as a Cambridge United fan, this is an imagined feeling rather than a lived experience.)

Tim wrote, 'Your novel is terrific. It’s intelligent, well written, funny and compelling. I really haven’t got all that much to teach you. Sorry if you thus consider this reading a bad investment!  But I do have a few pointers as to how we might tweak it. Otherwise it is ready to submit to agents. By the way, in case you think I am flattering you,  I almost never say this kind of thing to my writers - certainly not on a first submission. Congratulations SImon, this deserves to be published and be a success.'

I spoke with Tim a couple of days later. His so-called tweaks were more what I would describe as open-heart surgery. They involved cutting a favourite subplot and finding another title. I had thought Family Unfirm was brilliant. Tim didn't. He said it was terrible. 

Rejection

Tim warned me that the next step, securing an agent, would be challenging. I heard him but didn't imagine it would be that difficult. After all, I had a glowing endorsement. What agent will be able to resist that? I soon learnt that Tim had understated the scale of the challenge. He might as well have said, 'it's fucking impossible’.

I signed up with Jericho Writers, an organisation whose purpose is to help writers get published. From their database of agents and The Writers & Author's Yearbook, I compiled a long list of ninety agents from forty-two different literary agencies, who I thought might be interested in my book. I then ranked them on a five-point scale, based on the type of author they represented, whether they were interested in family or humorous novels, and actively looking for new authors. I ended up with a shortlist of seven ideal agents. I speculated how many of them would enter a bidding war for the right to represent me.

The process of submitting a proposal to an agent is archaic, inefficient and sole-destroying. The advice is to submit proposals in batches of no more than five or six at a time. Generally, agents say they will review submissions within six weeks, although some want as long as three months, and that if you don't hear back, it will mean they're not interested. They tell you not to chase them for a response. Consequently, you end up kicking your heels, waiting weeks for a rejection that may or may not come. And when it comes, it's a standard rejection, so you never get any indication of what you might do to improve your submission. I contacted twenty agents over the next year. I got twelve rejections. Eight didn't respond.

I found out that literary agents receive, on average, a thousand submissions a year, from which they will take on two new authors. I'm no gambler, but I like to place a bet on The Grand National. I generally pick a relative outsider, maybe a horse with odds of between 20:1 to 40:1. I would never ever consider putting money on anything at 500:1. Tim Lott had said the odds of getting an agent were further stacked against me as an older white male. I had replied that's fair enough, given I've been the beneficiary of white male privilege for all my life, but I didn't then realise that 500:1 was the starting point.

Plan B

I started to turn my sights towards self-publishing. While the odds of landing an agent are vanishingly small, I learnt that self-publishing has become increasingly easy.

Embarking on a self-publishing route, I commissioned a copy-editor and looked for a cover designer. I reviewed all the winners in the book cover design awards of 2019 and pulled out a handful of designers whose covers I particularly liked. One of them, Jamie Keenan, had also won the most awards. Even though I assumed he would be far too elevated to work for a novice like myself, I contacted him.

Much to my surprise, he said yes. Then he read my manuscript and was hugely complimentary – 'I loved your book! It reminded me of Jonathan Coe – a gripping and easy-to-read story on the surface with lots of other deeper questions slipped in almost subliminally.' Jamie came up with a design that felt just right.

Finally, a bite

Someone had suggested I should also contact independent publishers as a number of them accepted direct submissions. I did my research and came up with a long list of forty. Again I ranked these on my five-point scale, which gave me a shortlist of four. I sent off my submissions and four weeks later received my first bite. RedDoor Press asked to see the full manuscript. I tried, not altogether successfully, to keep my hopes under control. Two months later, I received an email from Clare Christian saying she liked it but had some buts. I'll come on to the buts; they were like Tim Lott's tweaks.

I called Clare. The first thing she said to me was that she had been speaking to a TV agent about another project and that she could see my novel as a six-part Netflix series. She wanted to know if I agreed. I wondered if this was a trick question to flush out unsuitable head-in-clouds writers. I said I was concentrating on seeing it as a book.

One of Clare's three buts involved a fundamental plotline, something that had been there right from the very beginning. My initial reaction was that I couldn't make such a change. I spent a few days agonising over it, feeling devastated to be so close and yet so far. A way of addressing it then came to me. I still didn't agree the change was necessary and wasn't completely confident in my solution, but on balance, I wanted a publisher more than I wanted to save that storyline.

The other casualty of my book deal was the cover. Although Clare liked Jamie's design, she wanted the title and the author's name to be more prominent. I suddenly found myself in familiar territory: I was back to being an account man in an advertising agency stuck between a creative team who are hellbent on protecting their idea and a client who wants a bigger packshot. Jamie threw his toys out of the pram. He said he wouldn't charge me for his time, but there was no way he would make these changes. He wished me luck, and we parted company.

Just in time

So, here I am, thirty-eight years after my drug-induced commitment to write a book; twenty-five years after deciding it would be a humorous novel about a family business; two and a half years after starting to write it; one and a half years after completing the first draft; six months after securing a publisher; and a few months before my debut novel hits the bookshelves, finally claiming to be a writer.

It gives me particular pleasure that The Better Brother will be published four months before my sixtieth birthday. It means I can tell my twenty-one-year-old self that I made it; I honoured that commitment.

Just.

Postscript

I googled Christopher Wood, the man who, in some small way, started me on this journey. Not only did I learn that he had died six years ago, but I also saw on his Wikipedia page that his daughter Caroline is a literary agent.

Her name rang a bell. I then realised she was one of my seven ideal agents. How perfect would the symmetry of my story have been had she agreed to represent me?

Sadly, such an ending was not to be: She rejected my submission. 

A Painfully True Story

On Tuesday March 3, 2020 at 17:30 hours, a young man boarded a train at Clapham Junction. I say young; he was, in fact, middle-aged. At fifty-seven, some might describe him as old. What was about to transpire might indicate the kind of deterioration in mental faculties often associated with old age. Let's, for argument sake, call him middle-aged. Not a bad-looking middle-aged man it has to be said, but this story isn't about physical appearance.

The middle-aged man was tired. He had flown in from New York the previous day and was suffering from the kind of jet lag that creeps up on you a day or two after landing. The jet-lag is a relevant detail in this story, in that it could be offered as a mitigating factor in the man's defence.

The jet-lagged man had moved to New York five months earlier to seek his fortune. That's not entirely true; he had moved to New York on the back of his wife's fortune. He was in the process of reinventing himself as a writer and had more or less retired. Another important detail is that, although the couple had moved to New York for his wife's job, they had done so by him getting a US visa through his company, thereby enabling his wife to work on a spouse visa. Their reasons for doing this are not important, but his US visa is relevant to the story. The visa, as you will soon see, is the lead character in this sad story. I say sad, but you might not see it that way. This is a story about consequences; of the repercussions of one small mistake. The moral of the story might be - 'make a mistake at your peril', but it's too early to be discussing morals. I haven't even told you the story yet.

The aspiring writer forced his way on to the train, unexpectedly packed with commuters on their way home. It was certainly unexpected for our hero, who had forgotten about rush hour now that he no longer worked in an office. He'd more or less forgotten about people en mass, as he was living a semi-reclusive writer's life in Greenwich Village, New York. He'd returned to London on a social trip, or rather he was passing through en route to a skiing trip with a couple of friends. That evening he was due to stay with one of those friends in Berkshire. They had planned to watch the Chelsea game on TV that evening and then catch a flight from Heathrow the next morning.

The man was lucky to get a seat on the crowded train. A young lady stood aside to let him take it, suggesting perhaps that maybe he looked older than he imagined. He was tired and so gratefully accepted her offer. As a rule, he liked to travel light with a single case but, on this occasion, he had a suitcase and a rucksack. He made a fateful decision as he took his seat to place his rucksack on the luggage rack. As he did so, he made a mental note to remember it when he got off the train. But because he was tired and jet-lagged, it was only faintly written in his neural pathways.

The carriage got emptier and emptier as the train got further and further away from London. The man drifted in and out of consciousness, as he tried to concentrate on being awake for his stop at Ascot. As events were to transpire, it would have been better had he fallen asleep and missed his Ascot stop. But this is not a Sliding Doors doors type story; there's no place for speculation on what might have happened in alternate universes. What actually happened was that he successfully disembarked at Ascot station. He then walked through the exit tunnel to the meeting point outside the front of the station. 

His friend hadn't yet arrived, and so he stood there, noticing his breath on the cold air. It was while he was waiting patiently at the front of Ascot station that a terrible realisation struck him: his rucksack had not disembarked with him. Just as it was dawning on the man that his precious iPad was in his rucksack, his friend arrived.

His friend greeted him cheerily, but the bonhomie quickly disappeared on hearing the man was without rucksack and iPad. The friend suggested they drive straight to Reading station, where, if luck was on their side, they could collect the rucksack at the end of the line. (It's probably not too much of a spoiler to say that luck was not on their side.) 

As they sped off, the friend asked if anything else was in the rucksack. This question prompted the middle-aged man to remember that it also contained his MacBook Pro. Then he remembered his new Sony headphones. Then the Swiss francs. And the dollars. He didn't usually carry cash, but on this occasion he happened to have £500 in three different currencies. All in the rucksack. Then he remembered that his key wallet was in his rucksack, complete with keys to his London home, his New York apartment, his office and his Swiss apartment. How would they get into the apartment in Switzerland? And then he had the horrible realisation that his passport was in his rucksack. His passport! Fuck. That was a problem. Without his passport, he wouldn't be able to fly to Switzerland the next morning. Then he remembered that his passport contained his US visa. Suddenly, whether or not he made it to his Boy's skiing weekend became the least of his worries. Without a US visa, he wouldn't be able to get back to New York and would miss the Jamaica holiday he had booked for his wife as consolation the shit month she had just had. (His wife's shit month is another painfully true story. Maybe it can be written up one day as a prequel to this painfully true story.)

The middle-aged man's friend suggesting calling South West Trains lost property. The middle-aged man hung on the phone for the forty minutes it took to drive to Reading. Just as they were approaching the station, a very helpful lady answered the phone. She couldn't help.

At Reading, our hero jumped out of the car and ran into the station and to Lost Property. It was closed. Eventually, he found someone who agreed to open up and see if the rucksack had been handed in. It hadn't. The South West Trains employee directed the man to the platform where the trains from Clapham Junction arrived, saying it might still be on the train. The man ran through the train looking at the racks but to no avail. The guard said the trains travelled back and forth between Waterloo and Reading and so the rucksack could now be on its way back to London. The guard said this was the slow line where trains stopped at every station. He suggested getting a fast train back to London Paddington from another platform and then a tube to Waterloo. The now somewhat flustered middle-aged man did this. It was after 10:00 pm by the time he got to Waterloo. He ran up and down a couple of the stationary Reading trains in a vain attempt to find the missing rucksack. He spoke to the cleaners who hadn't seen it. 

And then he gave up. 

A guard at Waterloo told him that, if handed in, the rucksack would be returned to the Lost Property office at Waterloo in five days. This was not what the flustered man needed to hear. He returned to his London home in a very sorry state. Not only had he missed the Chelsea game but it was now patently clear that he wouldn't be going skiing.

The next day things got a whole lot worse.

The man was hopeful that his rucksack would turn up and he would be reunited with it in five days. His flight back to the US was a week later; and so there was an argument for taking a risk, sit tight and gamble on its return. As events were to unfold, this would have been the best call, but it was not what the man did.

The UK Passport Office website was unequivocal in its advice. If you lose your passport, you must report it as soon as possible. It was very black and white. There wasn't an option for those who have lost their passport, have no idea where it is, but think it might turn up in five days in Waterloo. The man had thought it was possible to get a replacement passport within a day but found that the express service only applied if you had the old passport. The man thought this was a bit Catch-22: you can replace your lost passport on the same day but only if you have your lost passport. If not, the turnaround time is five days. This complicated the decision because if the man waited five days for his passport to return and it didn't turn up, he would miss his return flight to New York. 

The US Immigration website was decidedly unhelpful. The man eventually found a small note tucked away in the small print that said if you lose your visa, you have to cancel it immediately. This increased the man's inclination to cancel both his passport and visa. The website also said you needed to get a police report confirming the loss of the visa to qualify for a replacement. What the website failed to say, which would have led the man to make a different decision had he known, was that if you cancel your visa, you cannot simply replace it, but have to re-apply for a new one. It had taken the man four months to apply for his visa first time round and had required a considerable amount of supporting information from his company. He would have gambled on its return rather than cancel it had he been told this at the time. He tried contacting his lawyers in Washington for their advice, but they didn't respond.

On Wednesday March 4 at 10:00 am the man made a fateful decision to cancel his passport. He booked a five-day replacement service appointment for the first available slot, which was Friday morning. He then cancelled his US visa and walked over to Battersea Police Station to get a police report confirming its loss. He filled in the form explaining the circumstances of the loss. The policewoman read through the form carefully before handing it back to the man. 'We only deal with stolen property here.' 

The man thought quickly on his feet as he knew he had to have a police report to get a replacement visa. 'It was stolen,' he said.

'You've written here that it was lost on the train.'

'I meant lost as in stolen. It was definitely stolen because it went from the train and it wasn't in the lost property.'

The policewoman raised one eyebrow. 'Well, it's a matter for the train company. It's not our responsibility.'

The increasingly agitated man said, 'yes it is. I have to have a police report to get a replacement visa.'

'Where did you say you disembarked?'

'Ascot.'

'Well, you need to report it to the local constabulary there.' 

Our hero then realised the policewoman was worried about the Battersea crime statistics. It was her job to put as many obstacles in the way to stop a crime being reported as it would reduce their crime-solving percentage. Our hero realised he needed to be both assertive and pitiful at the same time. 'I lost it at Clapham Junction, that's your jurisdiction.' He paused, then added 'please help me.' He would have fallen to his knees at this point, had he not been behind a counter. Had dropped to his knees, he would have disappeared from the policewoman's view, which he thought might not help his cause. Miraculously, the policewoman was suddenly struck by a bolt of compassion. Either that or she saw the long queue building up and wanted this pathetic man out the way. She signed his form, and the man had his police report. (No-one would ever ask to see this police report. The man had been sent on what is known as a wild goose chase, not that he knew it at the time.)

Believing that maybe his luck might be turning, the pathetic man decided to visit the lost property office at Waterloo station. It was a dark and dingy place deep underneath the main concourse. The man pressed the button and then waited. And waited and waited. Eventually, someone appeared and asked him for details of the property he had lost. The man gave precise details of every item in his rucksack. The Lost Property man whistled through his teeth to indicate that he appreciated this was a significant loss. He disappeared to check whether it had been handed in. Our hero waited and waited. The whistling man reappeared with some good news. The rucksack was in Aldershot. Aldershot? Yes, Aldershot. What's it doing in Aldershot? It transpired that Aldershot was where lost property went before returning to Waterloo. And no, it was not possible to go and retrieve it from Aldershot; it was in a secure unit. No-one, not even anyone from South West Trains, was allowed to enter this unit. The whistling man said it would be back in Waterloo on Friday afternoon. There was a bounce in our hero's step as he walked out of that dark and dingy office in the depths of Waterloo.

The much-relieved man went online to cancel his Friday five-day replacement service appointment and book a new express same-day turnaround appointment for Saturday. It was not possible to change the appointment as they were non-cancellable. Actually, they were cancellable, but the £175 cost was non-refundable. The man baulked a little at the cost, but it seemed a small price to pay given the circumstances.

Then everything went downhill again. The man tried logging into the US Embassy website to book an appointment for a replacement. The site kept crashing. He remembered it did this when he had originally applied for his visa. After repeated attempts failed attempts to log-in, he emailed the US Embassy. The next day he received a response which said he would need to start the application process for a visa from scratch, although it did promise a slightly faster process than previously. Given it had taken four months the first time and the man had a flight booked the following week, he got somewhat agitated about this. He followed up with some further questions and tried again to contact his lawyers in the US. The next day, Thursday, March 5, his lawyer finally got back to him - two days after his first distress call. (Clearly, the man wasn't an important client.) The lawyer contacted the Embassy, who told them that their client had sent too many emails. Our hero took exception to this and said a rude word about American Immigration, even though he knew from experience that to lose patience with an American bureaucrat is always inadvisable. 

The next afternoon our hero returned to Waterloo Lost Property to be reunited with his rucksack. Only he wasn't. It was still in Aldershot. It was a different Lost Property man this time. He said his colleague had been correct to say that there would be a delivery from Aldershot on Friday, but wrong to suggest that the rucksack would part of that delivery. He said that there are deliveries every Tuesday and Friday, but there was no guarantee that the man's rucksack would be on any of those deliveries. He checked on the computer and confirmed it was still in Aldershot. He said it should get to Waterloo sometime in the next two weeks, but he couldn't say when. Our hero was distraught and as close to tears as he had ever been. He had to leave the office to compose himself. He punched a wall outside, walked round in circles and then crumpled down on the ground in a pathetic heap. He knew now he wouldn't be able to get back to New York the next week and they would have to cancel their holiday to Jamaica.

The man realised that the express same-day turnaround appointment he had booked for the next day was no good as this required the old passport. (The one that was incarcerated indefinitely in Aldershot.) He didn't cancel this appointment but did book another five-day replacement service appointment at the first available slot with was Monday. He had now spent £525 on appointments at the passport office alone. Maybe he would be given loyalty points.

As he had nothing better to do the next morning, Saturday, March 7, he went to his express same-day turnaround appointment. If nothing else, he thought, it would help familiarise him with the place and the process for when he returned on Monday. And maybe there would be an outside chance that he could persuade them to process his application for a replacement passport when he was there. This is what happened, a small victory in a sea of defeats; a kindly UK passport official took pity and agreed to process the application. He also said the new passport might arrive in less than five days.

The lady at the US Embassy was to prove much less obliging than the UK passport official, but we haven't got there yet. The next week the man's US lawyers worked on a new visa application and tried to get an emergency appointment at the US Embassy. South West Trains finally decided to return the man's rucksack, although without the cash. They gave him a voucher to get the sterling back but said that the Customer Relations department would be in touch about the dollars and the Swiss francs. (Nine months and numerous emails later, the man accepted that South West trains Customer Relations must have decided to keep the £305 in American and Swiss currency for themselves.) By the end of the week, the application was complete. No mean task incidentally, given it's close to 100 pages long and requires an astonishing amount of irrelevant detail. Five years of company accounts, comprehensive employee details, every holiday you have taken for the last ten years, the names of your childhood pets… well, maybe not that, but they might have well asked for that. The lawyers also managed to schedule an appointment for the next Monday, March 16. 

There are three real low points in this painful story. This first was on the evening of March 2nd when it dawned on the man, standing outside Ascot train station, that his rucksack was still on the train. The second was the moment on March 6th when South West Trains told him they had decided not to return his rucksack on the day they had promised. And the third low point was to be the appointment at the US Embassy.

America is a country of many contradictions. One of these contradictions is the dissonance between the 'have a nice day' service culture (where nothing is too much trouble) and a particular strain of bureaucrats who exist to humiliate and punish those who step out of line. (Arguably this is why so many people are imprisoned in the land of the free.) It has to be said that not all American bureaucrats are sadistic psychopaths, but our hero had the misfortune to encounter one that was on that fateful Monday morning.

'You've filled the form out incorrectly.'

'My lawyers filled in for me. It's the same as the one they completed last May.'

'Well it's wrong. It states that you are an employee when as an owner of the company, you should be categorized as an investor' (being an American she said categorised with a z rather than an s).

'Could you just change it on your system?'

'No, I can't.'

'We tried to call your lawyers on Friday, but they didn't answer the phone.' The man subsequently spoke with his lawyers who had no record of such a call. They also discovered that the American Immigration Service had changed the application form the previous month without telling anyone.

'And anyway you don't appear to have the letter. Where is the letter?' Even though it was by now clear that she was going to reject the application, the bureaucrat wanted to take every opportunity to humiliate the man.'

'I'm afraid I don't know the letter you mean.'

'If you can't be bothered to read the instructions…'

'I can assure you I've read every last word of the instructions and there is no mention of a letter.'

'You are required to bring a copy of the letter.' The man's lawyer managed to track down a copy of the letter a few days later from US Immigration in Washington. It had been sent the previous May to confirm the man's original visa; addressed to Simon Gravatt, The Client Relationship Consultancy, Boston, MA. That was it. They had at least got the right city, the man's US company is headquartered in Boston, but even the US postal service tends to require a little more detail. Unsurprisingly that letter never reached the man.

The officious bureaucrat told the man to go and sit in the naughty corner to reflect on his failures. Half an hour later, they called him to collect his papers. They then stamped 'cancelled' in big red ink on his old visa in his old passport and told him to leave the building.

Three days later, the US Embassy closed because of Covid. It would be another seven months before the man would get a replacement visa. He would be stranded in London and his wife stranded in New York (as she was on a spouse visa she couldn't leave the US) for all that time. 

By the end of the story, the previously middle-aged man was indisputably old. The stress had taken its toll. By its conclusion, he was a haggard shadow of his former good-looking self. He had lost £305 to South West Trains and £525 to the Passport Office, he had been humiliated by an American Immigration bureaucrat, let down by South West Trains and pitied by a Battersea policewoman. He had, though, learnt an important life lesson: If it contains a US visa, do not, under any circumstances, leave your passport on a train on the eve of a global pandemic.

The Pitch

Immediately after his Father's memorial service, Jack had returned to work and been put on a pitch team for a new financial services product. Jack was excited to be on the team. The agency had been added to the pitch list relatively late in the day, and therefore had a short amount of time to prepare their proposals. This meant the work was all-consuming and Jack had to put all his other concerns out-of-mind for two weeks. The agency had only been invited to pitch because their well-connected chairman was a member of the same club as one of the senior bank executives. The chairman had managed to wheedle his way into contention by spinning a good line about the agency's financial credentials.

Christopher "Birdbrain" Finch led the pitch team. There were times, during his two weeks working alongside him, that Jack felt such a nickname was slight on the intelligence of birds. Birdbrain was supremely confident that the business was already in the bag. When he summoned Jack into his office to tell him about the assignment, he said that, with their chairman's connections and the award-winning financial services credentials of their creative director, it was a shoo-in.

Christopher Finch was one of those men on whom privilege and opportunity had always been bestowed, and who thus took it for granted that his good fortune would continue. Getting into Eton at a time when who you knew mattered more than what you knew, he somehow scraped enough O-levels to make the sixth form. There his academic career stalled in failure. Even the most expensive education in the country couldn't help Christopher Finch scrape a single A-level.

The Finch's had a noble lineage, where the distinction between what then constituted a good marriage and what would now be classified as incest was blurred. Christopher Finch, some might argue, was the inevitable consequence of generations of in-breeding. Not that he saw it that way. 'School was simply not for me', the Old Etonian would say breezily. He liked to present himself as a man of business and a natural entrepreneur, even though he had never started a business in his life. It was an embarrassment to many within the agency not only that Birdbrain was employed there, but that he held a senior position. He owed this to the fact that the chairman was his godfather and that his father's business was the agency's single most significant client by some distance. Birdbrain felt an affinity towards Jack because, as he saw it, both had started in the despatch department and were thus the only two self-made men in the agency. Unlike their colleagues in the account management department, he told Jack, they had no fancy degree certificates to thank for their job. Their achievements were all down to their natural talent. Jack was a little uncomfortable to be taken under Birdbrain's wing and doubted the veracity of his self-made man story, but felt that there might be some advantage to be had in the early days of his career from his patronage. The chance to be part of the pitch team was one such opportunity.

'So we need to compile all our financial services experience.' Birdbrain had said to Jack. 'What financial experience have you got?'

'None.' said Jack.

'None? I thought you said you had worked at a bank.'

'Only on a week's work placement from school. I hardly think that counts.'

'Of course it counts. It demonstrates you've worked in a bank and have financial experience. It's only the procurement department at the bank who are asking for this. They simply want to be able to tick the box on their form. They don't care what that experience is. Anyway, Matt's awards for financial services advertising are all that matter. They show that we're the right agency for the job.'

Jack was subsequently able to verify that their vaunted creative director had indeed won some awards for an Australian bank, but that campaign had been mired in controversy. The bank had subsequently disassociated itself from the advertising, which they said had only run for a short period in a small test region. The implication being that it had slipped through the approval process at the bank. The agency had been fired shortly afterwards, and several executives at the bank lost their jobs. Jack was shocked when he saw the ads and not at all surprised that the bank wanted nothing to do with their crude sexism, which may conceivably have passed muster in Australia twenty years ago, but would be completely unacceptable in nineteen nineties Cool Britannia. The ads had garnered plenty of publicity, which was all that the advertising industry cared about, but it wasn't good publicity. Jack couldn't understand how they had won any awards but thought perhaps that this was because of his lack of experience in knowing what constituted great advertising. One thing he was sure of though, no woman could have been on any jury that awarded this work. Jack doubted Birdbrain had even seen the ads and thought it extremely unlikely that they constituted a winning hand in a pitch for a new savings product aimed at young working women.

Jack was delighted to be invited to attend the pitch presentation. It was unusual for a junior member of staff to attend such a meeting. Jack realised it was because Birdbrain was an arch-delegator and avoided presenting or exposing himself to scrutiny wherever possible. This was unusual in advertising, where the usual frustration of those lower down the hierarchy was of the senior executives presenting their work as if it were their own. It was precisely the kind of opportunity that Jack had hoped might come from working with Birdbrain. His contemporaries at the agency were in awe that he was part of what was an unusually large presentation team. Birdbrain appeared to have invited everyone on the pitch team to present their work to the potential client. As a result, a row of five young men sat alongside Birdbrain and Matt in the cavernous marble reception that was the bank's headquarters. When three smartly dressed women, one holding an art bag, walked past, Birdbrain turned to his assembled team and whispered, 'that's one of the other agencies. They must have just finished.' Jack couldn't help notice how pleased they looked, excitedly talking with each other as they walked out of the building. 'Tokenism', said Birdbrain, 'blatant tokenism.'

'Yeah' added Matt in his broad Australian accent, 'those chicks might look good, but how many awards have they won?' Jack began to feel uncomfortable. He had plucked up the courage earlier in the week to ask Birdbrain whether it was sensible to have an all-male team, given that this was a product for women. 'Men run banks.' Birdbrain had pronounced with authority, brushing Jack's concern aside. 'And great advertising is always created by men.' Sitting there in an atrium designed to make people feel small at the altar of Mammon, five minutes before they were due to go in, Jack began to have misgivings about his segment, a short piece entitled 'What Women Want'.

To describe the meeting as a disaster would be an understatement. A smartly dressed young man summoned the seven advertising men and ushered them into a formal meeting room that contained a sizeable circular oak desk, around which there were seven chairs. Three very professional-looking women occupied three of these chairs. One of the women introduced herself with great civility to each of the admen, and then said, 'It appears you are too many. We explicitly requested that you should bring no more than four people.' Birdbrain blustered that he didn't remember being given such instruction and then said that three of the team wouldn't mind standing. The client told him that this was not possible; a maximum of four people were allowed in the room. Her calmness was inverse to the state of flummox that Birdbrain was beginning to display. Jack was surprised, and excited and terrified in equal measure, to be selected as one of the four. With the agency team whittled down to an acceptable size, they all sat down. Jack wondered who would cover the sections of the three who had been evicted. He doubted Birdbrain had any intention of doing it and knew he wouldn't dare ask Matt, and so had a terrible foreboding that he was being set up as the fall guy. Oh well, he thought, what's the worst that can happen?

The lady, who was clearly the lead client, took the opportunity to start the meeting by re-introducing herself, Angela Denmore, and her team. In different circumstances, Jack could see that she would be a lovely person. Her poise and cordiality reminded him of Marianne's Mum, but from her next words, he knew she was about to conduct a ruthless emasculation. 'As you know, we did not select you to be on our shortlist and, to be perfectly frank, I'm personally uncomfortable about being party to this. I thought the days of the old boy network were, thankfully, long gone. But it appears not, as we've been instructed to see you. Our director is insistent that your agency has impeccable credentials in financial services. If this is true, I must say you have been remarkably discreet about it, because nothing I have seen or read about your agency suggests it. So it would be fair to say that I'm a little sceptical. I am though open to the possibility that we might have missed something and so please do share your impeccable credentials.'

The agency team shifted uncomfortably in their chairs before Birdbrain said 'we were planning to present our thoughts on the opportunity for your product first.'

'I'm sure your thoughts on our product are fascinating, but because you are here on account of…' Angela Denmore placed particular emphasis on her next three words, '…your impeccable credentials, I think we should see them first.'

Birdbrain said, 'Well, the best demonstration of our capability is an award-winning campaign of Matt's for a leading Australian bank. You might be familiar with it?' The clients shook their heads, but Jack could tell, from a quick knowing glance between two of them, that they knew exactly what was coming.

Matt stood up. 'Well, there's nothing I like better than being asked to show off my credentials to three lovely ladies.' Jack couldn't believe it. He knew Matt's reputation for being a crass unreconstructed male within the agency but assumed that was just an act. Surely someone of his seniority and experience would have had the gumption to adjust to the situation and present a more socially acceptable version of himself as warranted. But no, Matt really was that crass and unreconstructed. For a fleeting moment, Jack was envious of his three colleagues outside, but immediately dismissed that thought and decided to be grateful to be able to witness such a car-crash first-hand. The three clients were open-mouthed in astonishment. Not that Matt noticed. He pressed on. 'I'm surprised you ladies haven't seen my Sexy Sheilas campaign.' He proceeded to pull a series of prints out of his art bag and display them around the room. Seen together, particularly in the august surroundings of a formal bank meeting room, they gave an unpleasant impression of cheap pornography. A silence descended the room, broken by one of the clients asking how the agency had persuaded the bank to run such a campaign. 'We had a genius account man,' explained Matt, 'he could sell the arse off a donkey. I wouldn't say he pulled a fast one exactly, but he surpassed himself when he got that one by them. They were all cunts anyway.' Jack wasn't entirely sure what Matt hoped to achieve with his charming little aside.

Angela Denmore carried on as if discussing the petunias over afternoon tea. 'You said this advertising won awards. What was it about it that impressed the jury?'

'What apart from the tits, you mean?'

At this point, Birdbrain jumped in and said, 'you'll have to excuse Matt's coarse Australian humour. Although I can't speak for the jury myself, I imagine they were impressed by the boldness of the work. It was courageous for a bank to run a campaign that featured its staff in this way.'

Angela Denmore's eyes slowly tracked across the images of scantily clad bank staff and simply said, 'or very stupid.' Birdbrain put his hand on Matt's arm to prevent him from reacting in defence of his work. 'Now tell me, we're much more interested in effective advertising than award-winning advertising. Was this campaign effective?'

'It was mega-effective' said Matt, the previous insult washing over him as he remembered his moment of triumph. 'We had loads of requests for copies of the posters. People wanted to put them up at work.'

'By people, I presume you mean men. I'm interested in the stats. What was the criteria of success for this campaign?'

'Oh, I wouldn't know about that. Anyway, it didn't run for long. The bank lost its nerve over the publicity.'

'So not effective.' Angela deliberately wrote in her notebook. 'You say there was some publicity?'

'Yeah, loads. It was the headline item on the national news. Protests and boycotts. It was brilliant. Our media guys said it would have cost millions to buy that kind of exposure.'

'It sounds as if it probably did cost the bank millions.' One of Angela Denmore's colleagues struggled to suppress a giggle.

'You know that saying,' Matt pressed on. 'There's no such thing as bad publicity. All publicity is good publicity.'

'I'm not sure that's a view we subscribe to here. Now tell me', said Angela. She might as well have added, "young man", so rich in condescension was her tone, 'is this what we might expect if we work with you? Sexism leading to protests and boycotts? Is this your fundamental promise?'

'Well, yeah,' said Matt, before Birdbrain could stop him, 'if that's what you want.' The three bank clients looked at him in astonishment. 'I do advertising that gets noticed.'

'I have to say I'm not familiar with your work.' Angela couldn't resist the subtle jibe.

Birdbrain tried to get the meeting back on track. Can we start our presentation now? Jack here has got a great piece on what women want. It's incredibly insightful.'

'I don't think we need to see your presentation, thank you, although I would dearly love to learn from a man what it is that we women want. You’ve demonstrated what you are about and what we might expect were we to work with your agency. However, I am interested in one thing. Jack, I couldn't help noticing in your agency's submission that you've worked at our main competitor. You look very young. Could you tell me about your experience and how it might be relevant to our needs?'

'It was excruciating,' Jack told Marianne on a phone call later that evening. 'I had to admit that I'd only worked there for a week as a fifteen-year-old on placement from school. Angela Denmore put Birdbrain on the spot by asking him to explain exactly how this was relevant. It seems he had embellished my experience and made it a central part of our credentials in the submission. Birdbrain, being the complete and utter tosser that he is, tried to argue the point rather than admit defeat, which simply meant he dug himself deeper and deeper into the hole. One of the clients completely lost it and broke down into hysterical laughter. It was all I could do not to join her. It was very, very funny, Marianne, although right now it still makes my skin crawl to relive it."

'What happened afterwards?' asked Marianne.

'Matt strode through reception as if he owned the place, loudly proclaiming, "Fucking clients. Told you they were all cunts. They know fuck all about advertising." Our creative director seems to be a man with a limited vocabulary. It made him look very small. An angry little man in a black leather jacket diminished in a large building. He then disappeared off in a strop to some bar.

'What about Birdbrain?'

'That was extraordinary. It was as if he had been in a completely different meeting. He wanted to play the experienced adman sharing the benefit of his wisdom with his juniors. We decamped to a local coffee shop, where he told us that he thought we had represented the agency well and stood up for our belief in the power of great creative work. "If we don't win", he said, as if that was still a fucking possibility, "it will be because they're not brave enough". Unbelievably, he genuinely thinks there's a chance that we will be appointed. He seems to think our chairman's influence will hold sway. He's a fucking idiot. He thinks contacts are the only thing that matter and that content is irrelevant. Birdbrain then went on to say that it's necessary to be able to improvise in meetings like that, as clients often throw in unexpected challenges or change the agenda. I honestly think he believes he handled the meeting well.' As Jack told of the incompetence and ineptitude of it all, Marianne dissolved into laughter. It was implausible that a leading advertising agency could be quite so bad.

Jack’s friends at the agency didn't know how to react when he handed in his resignation a few months later to go and work at the family firm. It was the first time anyone had ever left them to become a funeral director. They threw a wake for him, presenting with him a tombstone-shaped leaving card with the inscription, "Death of an Adman". Birdbrain was particularly sad at the departure of his protege. He took the opportunity to remember the good times they had had together, such when they nearly won the bank pitch. This event had been rewritten within agency folklore as a heroic defeat; an inspiring example of when the agency stood its ground on creative principle.

Jack was surprised when Matt approached him during the party. The Creative Director hadn't previously acknowledged his existence, even when they pitched to the bank together. 'Hey mate, so you're the one who's becoming an undertaker. You've had proper preparation for that, working with some of the stiffs in this fucking place.' Jack was surprised to hear a director talking so disrespectfully about his management colleagues. He smiled weakly at Matt, not knowing how to respond. Matt then said, 'I created a great campaign for undertakers when I was in Australia.'

Jack could only imagine what such a campaign might involve. 'Really? I'm surprised that any undertaker would have enough money to run a proper advertising campaign. Maybe its different in Australia, but they tend to be small local businesses here in the UK.'

'Mate, that was the problem. I came up with this great idea, but we couldn't find anyone to run it. I thought maybe you might be interested. I came up with it at my Nan's funeral. Such a beautiful service; she was a lovely lady, my Nan. I owe her a lot. An inspiration to me.' Matt's semi-pornographic bank ads flashed through Jack's mind, as he wondered to what extent Matt's lovely grandmother had inspired his campaign idea. 'The funeral director was a woman, which was unusual. It got me thinking.' Jack swallowed as he tried to avoid imagining Matt's possible train of thought on female undertakers. 'Anyway, that led to me creating this brilliant campaign. It's something that no-one else has ever done.' Jack presumed there would be a million good reasons why no-one else had done whatever Matt might have dreamt up. 'Yeah, it's surprising really that no-one has ever sexed up the funeral business before. Like all great ideas, it seems so obvious once you've thought of it. Anyway, you should run it. You know what I'm capable of; it could make you famous. Put some time in my diary, and I'll show it to you.' With that, Matt clasped his hand on Jack's shoulder in a gesture of male solidarity, before walking off to inveigle himself in a group of young female account managers.

Jack remained standing by himself for a few moments. He reflected on how such a brilliant creative mind might promote the business of death. Having seen how Matt tackled the financial sector he knew it would be entirely inappropriate and have his father spinning in his grave. Maybe I should ask them to pitch for the business he thought.

Bumble

'Out.'

I'm not sure whether I was more irritated by the triumphant tone of my opponent's call or by his brazen cheating. My shot had been a good six inches within the baseline. I had known from the moment the ball left my racquet that it was good. I was seventy feet away on the other end of the court and clearly saw it bounce well before the line. My cat could have called it, and my cat knows fuck all about tennis. I couldn't let him get away with it again. 'Are you sure?' I shouted.

'Perfectly sure. I can even see the mark where it hit the ground. Bad luck, old chap.'

That was as far as my resistance went. I was no John McEnroe, that's for sure. The etiquette of the game decreed that it was my opponent's call. He was entirely within his rights to cheat if he wanted to, and there was nothing I could do about it. His claim to see the ball's mark on an acrylic surface that no tennis ball could ever mark was an outrageous and provocative embellishment. We both knew it, but short of calling him a cheat - which I would never do, could never do - I had no option but to accept it. I internalised my rage and promptly double-faulted to give him the first break of the match.

Any benefit of doubt that I'd been prepared to give my opponent evaporated in that moment. He was a pompous public-school twat; someone who had been brought up to believe he could bend the world to his will. I resented that he had infiltrated our club, a genteel establishment that prided itself on its sportsmanship. What I didn't realise then was that it was not only a game of tennis that I was on the verge of losing but also our precious club as I knew it.

My irritation continued into the next game. I overhit my first two returns, the second with such power that it shot through the wire mesh netting of the court. I watched my opponent as he shambled off the court to retrieve the ball. How could I be losing to someone with a body mass index like that? He wasn't a bad player. He’d probably been brought up with a tennis court in his back garden and enough private coaching to give him the muscle memory to enable him to hold his own in a social game of doubles, but there was no way I should be losing to him. We had played once before. I had been five games up when he resigned. Admittedly he'd just had a nasty bout of Covid-19, which was the reason he gave for walking off in the middle of the sixth game.' Sorry, old chap, but I'm a bit out of sorts today,' he had said. 'Let's play again when I'm back to tip-top condition.' So this is his peak condition I thought as he bumbled back on court. Bumble, that's what I'm going to call him.

‘You're on the wrong side.' Bumble said as he lined up to serve to the backhand side.

'No, we've only played two points. It's thirty-love.'

'Forty-love.'

'I'm sorry, but we've played two points. I overhit my return both times.'

'Yes, and before that I served an ace.' This was a complete fabrication. He hadn't come close to acing me once in the whole match. He must know that it was a lie. He couldn't possibly be such a fantasist as to believe such an absurdity.

'I sorry, but you're mistaken. We've only played two points; you definitely didn't ace me.' I walked towards the net in an attempt to resolve the little misunderstanding, but Bumble stood his ground on the baseline and made ready to serve. 'Did you hear what I said?' I raised my voice in irritation.

'Yes, I heard you perfectly well old chap, but you're wrong. It's forty-love. Now are you going to receive my serve or am I going to ace you again?' I could see the smirk on his face, underneath his unruly mop of blonde hair. He didn't care. It was all a game to him. It was as legitimate to him to gain a point by making it up as it was to hit a winning shot. 'C'mon old chap, just get on and play the game.' What could I do? The etiquette of the amateur game is that the server keeps the score. When a disagreement arises, the server has the last word. Such etiquette assumes honesty and good sportsmanship. Never in my thirty years of playing the game had I been confronted with an opponent who had such scant regard for the notion of fair play. I thought about walking off, as he had done previously, but I was better than that. What was it Michelle Obama said? When they go low, we go high. I got into position to receive his serve, determined to return it with power and accuracy. I resolved to beat him fair and square in our battle of good versus evil.

I have to give Bumble credit for his next move. Knowing that he'd got under my skin, he chose to play a dolly-drop of an underarm serve. He literally went low. Very low. I was standing so far behind the backline, pumped up with adrenalin, that there was no way I could possibly reach the ball before its second bounce. It rolled slowly under my desperate lunge. I had been aced in the most humiliating way.

'Hard luck old chap, you nearly got that.' I should have stopped then. Foolishly, I continued. It was hardwired in me to complete a match: I wasn't a quitter. But I was in no fit state to play. Tennis is a head game, which means you need complete focus on the point in play. As soon as that concentration goes, you're lost. I was shaking with rage. There was no way I could clear my mind of the injustice of what had just happened.

The bigger problem, though, was that I was unable to adjust to the new game that we were playing. It wasn't tennis as I knew it, but a contest against an opponent who had a complete disregard for the rules of the game and seemingly felt at liberty to lie whenever it suited him. I was in such a state that he would have won anyway, but that didn't stop him continuing to fault perfectly good shots, to award himself bogus points and to refuse to accept that he had double-hit the ball when it was indisputable that he had done so. He bounced up to the net at the end of the match and put out his racquet to touch the top of mine as is the new way of sporting handshake in this socially distanced world. I wished the guidelines mandated more than six feet, which was way to too close to this odious man for my liking. Not, I supposed that he would pay any attention to the guidelines.

'Well played, old chap. You faded a bit at the end, but you stayed with me for most of the first set. We should play again.'

I shook my head. 'I don't think so.'

'Oh, c'mon old chap, don't give up that easily. I agree that you might not ever beat me, but you'll improve your game by playing people who are better than you.'

That really got to me. 'Ok,' I said curtly, 'I'll play again, but only with an umpire.'

'Splendid idea, old chap.'

Ours was a typical local tennis club. In recent years there had been an influx of younger members, no doubt inspired by Andy Murray, that had let to the emergence of some low-level tension among the traditional old guard. The most heated argument concerned the dress code. The newer members objected to having to wear whites on the courts and a tie in the restaurant. A fragile truce had been reached which involved different codes on different days, a dress-down Friday sort of arrangement. Needless to say, this was still wholly unacceptable to some of the more traditional members who were affronted that they should be obliged to quaff their gin and tonics in the presence of some open-necked chappies three evenings a week. The other evolution was an increased collaboration with other clubs in the county. Historically, our club had been a closed affair with no interest in other clubs, but some of the new members had signed us up to the regional league and were pressing for more of reciprocity with other clubs. The idea that we should open our doors to members of clubs from other villages was a step too far, and the motion was voted down.

The most prominent member of the old Guard was Bar Room Bore, a florid man who never held back from sharing his trenchant views. Despite never seen anywhere near a tennis court, he appointed himself as leader of the resistance against any modernisation. He had lost the battle against allowing women in the bar a few years back and was determined to prevent any further degradation, as he saw it, towards preserving the spirit and atmosphere of the 1950s in the club. Bar Room Bore's masterstroke in the burgeoning culture war was to invite Bumble into our club.

I was psyched for the rematch. Foolishly, I assumed that it would be incumbent on me to find the umpire as I had suggested it and as I was the long-standing member of the club. I had arranged for one of the other members to do the job and so was surprised when I arrived to find Bumble already at the court with a lady I didn't recognise. 'Well hello old chap, let me introduce you to my friend who has agreed to umpire our match today.'

Bumble's friend's pinstripe jacket and high heels were more suited for adjudication in the law courts rather than on the umpire's chair at a village tennis match. I shook her hand and said, 'hello. I'm afraid we won't be needing you as one of the other club members has agreed to do it.'

Bumble intervened. 'I've stood him down old chap. Besides my good friend here know's what she's doing; she used to be in the second six at her school.'

'Do you still play?' I asked her.

'To be honest, no, I don't, but it's like riding a bicycle isn't it. Once you've learnt, you never forget.'

I'd been stitched up. I was pleased to win the opening point and looked over to our umpire, waiting for her to give the score. Nothing. Noticing me looking at her, she said 'What?'

'Aren't you're going to say the score?'

'Why? Don't you know it?'

'That's what umpires do. That's why you're here.'

'What? I'm supposed to say the score after every point?'

'Yes'

She turned to Bumble. 'You didn't say anything about that.'

Bumble shouted across the court, 'I say old chap, I don't think she needs to keep the score. This is only a friendly game between mates; it's hardly Wimbledon.'

'Yes, we do need her to score. That's what umpires do; it avoids any misunderstanding. If she can't do it, I'll go and get the club member who had agreed to umpire this match.'

'There's no need for that.' Bumble turned to his friend and said, 'would you mind terribly doing the score as well? Pretty please.' His simpering was appalling, but astonishingly it worked. She relented.

I said, 'so, what's the score then?'

She shrugged and replied uncertainly, 'One - zero to you?'

'Do you know how to score in tennis?'

'Not really.'

'I thought you said you'd played tennis.'

'The tennis I played didn't look like this. We played on a table with a little net and small white balls.'

'Table tennis?'

'Yes, that's it.'

'For fuck's sake', I exploded.

'There's no need for language like that. I'm only here to help out.'

'Well, you're no fucking help if you don't know the rules of the game.'

Bumble intervened, 'Steady on old chap, it's only a game. We can keep the score, and my friend can adjudicate on any close calls. That's all we need isn't? Splendid.' I don't know why I went along with this. I still thought I could beat him and was desperate for revenge, but I'd forgotten that we weren't playing tennis as I knew it. Our umpire spent the whole game staring at her phone. Whenever Bumble asked her to adjudicate on a point that she hadn't seen, she ruled in his favour. Having all the key points erroneously called against me together with my growing frustration at the injustice of it all, meant I didn't stand a chance. At the end of the match, for the first time in my life, I stormed off the court without acknowledging my opponent.

Despite my intense dislike of the man, I have to concede that Bumble is an effective campaigner. He and Bar Room Bore made a ruthless team and had more or less won the war before any of us knew it had begun. They started their campaign to make our club great again, as they put it, by causing mischief by planting false rumours about some of the newer young members that played into the latent prejudices of the old guard and calcified divisions within the club. Bar Room Bore finally had a theme for his rants; he alternated between waxing lyrical about the past and denigrating other local clubs. He demonised anyone from a neighbouring village, which was pretty ironic given his wife originated from one of them. Someone speculated that his antipathy to our neighbours was simply a reflection of his marital difficulties; the division he was seeking to seed between the other villagers and us was nothing more than an escalation of his domestic tiff. It was difficult to understand why else he would want to present our neighbours and friends as our enemy.

It dawned on me that we were in trouble when I chanced upon one of the more reasonable members of the old guard one afternoon. 'Isn't it great that we're reclaiming our club,' he said excitedly.

'Reclaiming it? From whom?'

'They've decided to ban competition against the other clubs and with the money saved from that we're going to erect a fence to keep unwanted guests out.'

'But it doesn't cost anything to compete with other clubs. And what do mean a fence to keep people out? We've got a perfectly good hedge and who do we want to keep out. We've always welcomed guests.'

'The world's changed, my friend. There are a lot more people who aren't like us.'

'You mean the other villagers? They're exactly like us and anyway its good to have all sorts in the club. Think how dull it would be if everyone were just like you and me.' My previously reasonable friend didn't like that joke at all. Shortly afterwards, I was reprimanded by the committee for making offensive and disparaging remarks about a fellow member.

Bumble didn't stop at the fence, he put barbed wire along the top and installed security cameras which excited Bar Room Bore enormously because it all reminded him of the blitz. Seeing him as some latter-day Churchillian figure who was going to restore their beloved club to the exceptional place of their befuddled memories, the old guard soon voted Bumble on to the committee. Shortly afterwards the committee voted to ban non-wooden racquets. There was a lot of excitement among those members who had been blown away by some graphite racquet welding youth whose powerful serves were too much for their ageing limbs and inferior wooden racquets. They imagined that they would finally be able to safely return to the court in what would be the country's only wooden racquet club. That was the day I, along with many others, cancelled our membership and almost overnight the club became little more than an old persons' home.

As I was heading out for the last time, I noticed a small bespectacled, slightly balding man in animated discussion with Bumble in the far corner of the clubroom, the pair of them looking like Laurel and Hardy. 'Who's that?' I asked my friend.

'That's his special advisor."

'Bumble has an advisor!' I was shocked.

'Yes, he's the mastermind behind all this.'

'Mastermind? What's he hoping to achieve?'

'I've no idea. Someone told me he just likes causing trouble and tearing things down to see what happens.'

'And what about Bumble, what does he want?'

'I dunno, I suppose he wants to feel important.'

'What even if it means destroying the club?'

'He doesn't see it like that. He's got people here telling him he's their saviour. That's what he wants. Acclaim.'

A few months after I had left, the club - financially crippled by the loss of income from the departed younger members and discovering there wasn't much of a market for a club that only allowed wooden racquets - sold off half of its land to a developer. The half they sold contained most of the courts. The old guard were delighted because their bar was saved. Bumble then made his most audacious move, no doubt one orchestrated by his puppet master, which I'm told, he launched with great fanfare as the Get Real campaign. If Bumble had any talent, it was for coming up with political slogans. The Get Real campaign pronounced that real tennis was the only authentic form of the game and superior to lawn tennis. It said that lawn tennis had become commercialised and inferred that the Lawn Tennis Association were part of some international cabal intent on wrecking local traditions. The old guard were ecstatic; the turning clock wasn't stopping at the 1950s, it was going all the way back to medieval times when Britain indeed was an island nation. None of the members had ever played real tennis, nor given their condition were they ever likely to, but Bumble had convinced them that this was the real deal, the crowning glory of their club's return to greatness. The money from the developers financed the bulldozing of the remaining two tennis courts and the construction of a real tennis court.

I hadn't set foot in the club for nearly a year, but one day my curiosity got the better of me. I decided to pay a visit. The iron bar gate was locked, and no-one answered the intercom. I was just about to give up when Bumble appeared. 'What ho, old chap. I haven't seen you for a while.'

'No, I left the club.'

'Splendid, splendid.'

'Did you hear what I said? I left. I'm no longer a member.'

'Oh, well, we are much more exclusive nowadays. Got rid of all the riff-raff.' I wasn't sure if Bumble was calling me riff-raff or whether he was just spouting a new party line without thought. 'Hey, old chap, we should have a game of real tennis.'

'I don't think so,' I said, 'I'm no longer welcome here and anyway I don't know the rules of real tennis.'

'That's not a problem, nor do I. Who cares for rules?'

'I have to ask,' I said, 'why have you done all this?'

'Done all what, old chap?'

'Taken over and then destroyed our club.'

'Don't be ridiculous my good friend; I've restored it to its former glory. I got rid of all the doomsters and gloomsters and have made it great again.' He really believed it, as much as someone like him could ever believe anything. In little over a year, he had turned a vibrant and welcoming tennis club into a museum for an archaic sport from a bygone age attached to a pensioners' social club who liked to be closeted away from anyone not like them.

As I watched Bumble disappear through the security gate, I wondered how could we possibly have let this happen?

Thoughts from a Bike

Thoughts from a bike, inspired by my time on a bicycle between Wandsworth and Waterloo, are the musings of a middle-aged man trying to make sense of the world in which he finds himself. Here is a short selection from my archive of monthly pieces from 2014-2015.

The Y Chromosome is about the fall of man; The Ride of my Life recalls a 14 mile hands-free ride back home from the pub; The Loneliness of a Long-Distance Cyclist explores the unconscious death-wish of the urban cyclist; Stolen Bicycles For Sale remembers an early entrepreneurial venture; Red Light is a tale of frustration.

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Thoughts from a Bike

The Y Chromosome

Ride Of My Life

The Loneliness of the Short-Distance Cyclist

Stolen Bicycles For Sale

Red Light


The Y Chromosome

The other day I mistook the dog medicine for my cough medicine. I realised my error after the second teaspoon.

Panicked, I barked at my wife, 'What's the dog medicine for?'

'The dog.'

'Yeah, I know that, but why does the dog need it? I've just had two teaspoonfuls of it.'

'Why did you do that? If you knew it was for the dog.'

'Why the fuck do you think I did it? To be more dog? It was a mistake. I'm a man; men make mistakes. You know that.'

Other than taking off down the street a couple of hours later in pursuit of a tortoiseshell cat and then cocking my leg at a street lamp, there were no immediately noticeable side effects.

The bigger concern is the possibility that this incident could be further evidence of natural selection at work. What with the declining sperm count in men and the continual atrophy of the Y chromosome, there has been some speculation that within 5,000 generations the male of the human species will become extinct.

I think it could happen a little sooner than that.

Men are disappearing. My company has gone from being 100% male when it started ten years ago to 50:50 at the end of last year. Three months and six female hires later, the women have taken over, and our corporate testosterone count is down to 43%. It's the same story at home where the equilibrium between the sexes was lost when my son decamped to Durham, leaving me in an uncomfortable minority of one.

I'm surrounded by women.

Even the dog is a bitch.

The only two places where men outnumber women seem to be the Conservative front bench and the bicycle lanes of London. This is probably Darwinism at work. Men are ending up in those places where any reasonably intelligent person would know not to venture.

My wife certainly plays on my deficient male cognitive ability.

A few years ago, I announced that I was considering shaving all my remaining hair off to become completely bald. 'You can't do that', I was told, 'You have a funny shaped head'. I wasn't exactly sure what she meant by this but accepted it anyway. It was a conversation that has repeated itself several occasions since.

Only recently, when sitting in the barber's chair having my regular 'number one' all over, did I have a rare opportunity to examine my head in the mirror. I realised I have so little hair, and cut the little I have so short, that the contours of my head are clear for anyone to see, whether I shave the last few remaining follicles off or not. I had been duped by my wife, who took advantage of my little brain. When I challenged her on it she said, 'I like you better with longer hair'.

'Well, so do I', I thought. I like me better with longer hair, but sadly it's not an option. She might as well have said, 'I like you better when you are a virile twentysomething that is not hard of hearing and can read menus in dimly lit restaurants.' That version of me is long gone.

Decline and fall. Me, the brotherhood and the Y chromosome are on our way out.

I wonder if the Dodo entertained similar thoughts before that final fateful leap into the unknown.

March 2014

Ride Of My Life

When I was young, much younger than today, I drank Baileys by the pint.

I also once ate thirty-six Weetabix in a single sitting.

And I went barefoot for most of my first year at university.

In a recent TED talk - 'The mysterious workings of the adolescent brain' - cognitive neuroscientist Sarah-Jane Blakemore explained that the part of the brain responsible for insight, judgment, impulse control and empathy is somewhat lacking in teenagers.

In other words, their operating system is deficient.

Together with Trevor, my schoolboy partner in crime, I converted the loft in our boarding house into an illicit smoking den, re-wiring the electrics to provide a sophisticated lighting system and power the record player. That this might have been a major fire hazard didn’t occur to our under-developed minds.

But from these moments of madness come the strongest memories. My recall of those adolescent years is much more vivid than anything before or since.

One such memory, the teenage achievement of which I am most proud, came on my bicycle.

I used to live in a village called Bassingbourn on the Cambridgeshire Hertfordshire border. My girlfriend, my football team and The Eagle Public House were all fourteen miles away in Cambridge.

Sometimes, after an evening at The Eagle or with my girlfriend, or both, I would take the train and then cycle three miles back from Royston station. Many times, though, after the last train had long since departed, I would cycle all the way back home in the dead of night.

(It was after one such ride, and a severe case of the munchies, that I polished off thirty-six Weetabix.)

My proudest achievement was that I once cycled all the way home hands-free. I didn't touch the handlebars at all in during the fifty-five minutes it took to complete the fourteen-mile journey.

Thanks largely to the Romans, Cambridgeshire is geared up for hands-free cycling. It is flat and straight. The fourteen miles contain one roundabout, two junctions, ten bends and one hill. It presents only three significant challenges for the hands-free cyclist.

The first being the solitary hill between Cambridge and Bassingbourn. Only two hundred and seventy-six feet high, to a native of East Anglia like myself it was a mountain. In the Doomsday Book, the neighbouring village is called Ord Wella, which means ‘spring by a pointed hill’.

It’s not easy cycling up a hill, even a relatively small one, without hands. You need to keep your speed up; otherwise the balance goes. The thing about cycling up a hill is that gravity takes a firmer grip and starts to pull you back down. I had anticipated this (even as a teenager I tended to think ahead) and so had steadily built up speed for the preceding half a mile. I don’t know how fast I was travelling when I hit the incline, but it was fast enough to get me to the top without even the slightest wobble.

I fair flew up that mountain and was still moving at a fair lick by the summit.

This presented a new challenge. Something that I had failed to anticipate. Something I hadn’t properly thought through. Something that came into sharp focus the moment I flashed over the top of that pointed hill.

As I began to pick up even more speed, I remembered that gravity works the other way round when going down.

A downside of hands-free cycling is the lack of access to brakes.

It is remarkable how much speed one can pick up when descending a two hundred and seventy-six-foot pointed hill.

The village of Wimpole passed in a flash.

Thankfully, the village of Wimple was fast asleep when I exploded through it like a meteorite entering Earth’s atmosphere.

Thankfully, the village of Wimpole didn’t have speed cameras in those days.

Thankfully, neither did it have speed bumps.

It was just over two miles from the hill to my next challenge, one that I was approaching somewhat faster than I would have liked despite not having used my pedals since the summit.

The next challenge was the junction that connected the A603 with the main road from Royston to Huntington. Executing a sharp left turn from one major road on to another requires a not inconsiderable amount of skill and a dollop of luck. Luck that no other cars are passing at the same time.

To a fully-formed adult brain, the consequences of a being hit by a car travelling at 50mph would constitute a risk not worth taking. In fact, no-one in their right mind would contemplate bursting on to a major road in the gamble that it might be empty. Even in the early hours of the morning. But as Professor Sarah-Jane Blakemore has already established, I wasn’t in my right mind. My teenage brain, with its under-developed pre-frontal cortex, lubricated by a couple of pints of Greene King, and stimulated by the challenge of a record-breaking hands-free ride simply didn’t have the capacity for assessing reasonable risk.

As it was, no cars were passing that junction on the A1198 at the very moment a high-speed hands-free merchant joined it with what nowadays would be recognised as a sweeping snowboard-like manoeuvre. Had there been, you wouldn’t be reading this blog now.

At no point did it occur to me that my life might have been in danger. I was a teenager. I was immortal. I was giddy with the success of having first held my nerve while travelling at high velocity down a pointy hill without the assistance of brakes and then, secondly, having completed a sharp left-hand turn on to a major road without having fallen over.

The last four miles were a breeze. The remaining challenge was relatively easy. It involved a sharp right turn, but this time from a major road on to a minor road, and with no oncoming traffic.

Nothing could stop me from the triumphant completion of the ride of my life.

January 2015

The Loneliness of the Short-Distance Cyclist

'Cyclists. Do not pass on this side.'

'Or I'll kill you.'

While the new warning sign that is springing up on the back of trucks doesn't actually spell it out, the threat is nonetheless clearly there in the subtext.

Cycling in London can be a perilous undertaking. Making my unsteady way through the building site that is the Nine Elms and Battersea Power Station development, alongside a continuous stream of heavy goods vehicles - none of whom presumably have the slightest inkling they are sharing their road space with something as insignificant as a bicycle - feels about as safe as life as a gay activist in the Crimea.

I've been knocked off my bike three times. Once by a very slow-moving limousine on Parliament Square, so slow that it hardly counted. Probably a Tory grandee just going about his everyday business of unknowingly, uncaringly and regularly running over the proletariat. Once by a van at Clapham Junction, where I incurred some bruising and scratching. A ponce on a racing bike, red rag to a bull for white van man. And most dramatically by a woman in Chicago who opened her parked car door just in time for me to slam into and end up sprawled across the road. She had no way of knowing I was a Limey, but I have to believe that at some level she must have known.

'You cycle to work?' I love this question. It fills me with expectation. I imagine that I am about to be cast as a modern-day urban superhero. A giant amongst commuters. A manly man.

'In London?' Yes, London, where I leave cyclists half my age trailing in my urban dust, where I race with milk floats, where I dance over potholes, and yet where I stop at red lights because despite my testosterone-fuelled manliness I am also a well-adjusted and socially responsible citizen of the world.

'You're so brave,' they swoon, 'there is no way I could do that.' Sadly their eyes betray the truth. They don't think I'm brave; they think I'm crazy. They see me as unhinged. It doesn't take long before they excuse themselves.

No-one likes cyclists. Not unless they are Bradley Wiggins or resemble a Smurf. Regular cyclists are not popular. Motorists hate cyclists because they get in the way. Truck drivers hate cyclists because they fear being blamed for running them over. Pedestrians hate cyclists because they get hit by them. Couch potatoes hate cyclists because they make them feel guilty about exercise. Dogs hate cyclists because they can never run quite fast enough to bite that great big provocative wheel. Other cyclists hate cyclists, because, as everyone knows, cyclists are wankers. Air travellers hate cyclists because they own the moral high ground on climate change, and everyone hates someone who owns the moral high ground.

As a cyclist who flies a lot, I'm a wanker with unacceptably large carbon footprint.

Last week, while doing my bit to finish off the ozone layer, I found myself in an uncomfortable position. I had downloaded 'Blue is the Warmest Colour' on my iPad. This is a fine film. An everyday explicit lesbian love story. Very explicit. Not long into the movie, I had to stop watching when I found myself in the midst of an intense, intimate, and it has to be said truly mind-blowing scene. Although I had the relative privacy of a flatbed seat, the risk of the air hostess glimpsing what was on my iPad was too great. I imagined my 26-year-old work colleague being forcibly taken away from me for her own safety. We were, at the time, in the airspace of the United Arab Emirates where they execute adulterers. Not being entirely sure where they stand on hardcore teenage lesbian porn, I threw my iPad out the window. Or at least I would have done had I not been in a sealed cabin at thirty thousand feet.

A wanker with an unacceptably large carbon footprint who secretly watches hardcore adolescent lesbian porn, it would be fair to say that I may have some self-esteem problems. This could be why I cycle. I'm no psychiatrist, but it makes sense that a cyclist, particularly a London cyclist, is driven by an unconscious death-wish.

It can be the only possible explanation of why certain cyclists have decided that red lights don't apply to them. Without doubt, they are the twenty-first-century equivalent of a lemming throwing itself off a cliff. I may be stupid, but I'm not that stupid. It might, though, explain why I find myself treating those warning signs on the back of trucks less as a warning not to pass, but a challenge to try and do so.

April 2014

Stolen Bicycles For Sale

Life is like a bicycle. Both go round and round. Both get cold, wet and miserable in winter. Both require resilience. And both can, as my bike has, crack under pressure.

A technician spotted an almost imperceptible hairline fracture in the frame during a recent service. It was only a matter of time before a spectacular collapse.

I'm hoping that the cracks and creaks in my recent BUPA health check aren't similarly indicative of a general road unworthiness and imminent collapse.

With my bike grounded until a replacement frame arrives, my meandering has come to a shuddering halt. Reflective thought on an overcrowded cattle truck at Clapham Junction is impossible.

Thinking about bicycles in need of care, though, takes me back over thirty years. At the start of my second undergraduate year, I needed a bicycle. One of my friends told me that in Cambridge it was possible to buy unclaimed bikes on the cheap from the police. Wondering if they might do the same in Oxford, I paid a visit to the local constabulary. They told me that they sold all the unclaimed bikes every six weeks in one or two lots through a sealed bid auction. I asked them how many bikes were in a lot. They said anywhere between twenty and forty.

I thought there must be a similar number of students in Oxford who would be interested in buying a dirt-cheap bike. I spoke to my friend Pete and persuaded him to join me in a joint venture to try and buy thirty or forty bicycles. Pete had a car and so didn't need a bike, but he saw an opportunity.

We arrived at Oxford Police Station on the day of the auction and were surprised to see how many other people were there. Not only did we have competition, but we had serious competition. We were up against bicycle dealers, some of whom had come from as far as London. While the dealers inspected each bike in great detail, sizing them up in much the same way that a livestock merchant might prod a cow at a cattle market, we simply counted how many bicycles there were in each lot. This was easier said than done because they were in varying states of repair. The reason the police sold them in lots was that a good proportion of them would be unsellable otherwise and only suitable for parts.

While the professional dealers were going about their measuring and their weighing, Pete and I had a philosophical discussion about when is a bike not a bike. We concluded that in amongst the rusted frames dredged from the River Cherwell, the broken chains, bent wheels and one or two gems that made up one lot, there were approximately thirty bicycles. We undertook a sophisticated assessment, as might be expected from a couple of Business Studies students, and valued each bike at £10. We then added £5 to ensure that we outbid anyone else who had used the same calculus.
It is worth pointing out that my student grant in 1982 was £410, so £305, even between the two of us, represented a significant outlay.

What, up to that point, seemed like nothing more than a little bit of fun took a surprising turn when the police called the next day to let us know that one of our two bids had been successful. (Thank God, we missed out on the second lot.) The police asked us to collect the bikes the next morning. The start of a brave new business venture seemed a good enough reason to skip our Economics lecture. Better to do business than study it, we figured.

After taking our money, the policeman asked us where our van was. We said we didn't have a van. We had Pete's Volkswagen Beetle. He said he meant where was our van to transport the bikes. We told him we planned to transport them in Pete's Volkswagen Beetle.

The copper looked at us, a couple of twenty-year-old students, and had a sense of humour failure. He told us to stop fucking him around. We told him we weren't fucking him around.

It took seven hours of cramming bits of bike inside the Beetle and strapping whole bicycles on the outside, Pete driving two miles across Oxford, unloading them in our student house (which fortunately had a garage) and then returning for the next load. Looking back, I'm amazed the police let us out on the road. Unrecognisable as a Beetle, it looked as if a pile of bicycles were independently moving down Oxford High Street. I guess their desperation to be rid of the bikes (and us) overrode any instinct they may have had to enforce the Highway Code and basic road safety.

A few days later, I was fly-posting the Oxford colleges with a simple message 'Stolen bicycles for sale'. Basic art direction: Black marker pen handwritten on A4 paper. With the benefit of hindsight and a few years experience in the advertising industry, I might have positioned our product slightly differently. At the time, it seemed funny. Now I can see that presenting our bicycles as stolen might not be the most attractive proposition. Nevertheless, in terms of return on advertising investment, it has been one of my most successful campaigns. It resulted in a single enquiry, which we converted into a £40 sale. The posters cost me 13p to photocopy, giving a return on investment of 284%. Some years later, I met someone from Oxford University who remembered the posters. The advertising industry measure 'day after recall'. This was 'years after recall.'

Our very first customer came not from our advertising, but word of mouth. He had the pick of the bunch and got a decent bike for £30. We suggested he might also like a bicycle basket for his new bike. Only £4. It was unfortunate that he stopped at the local bike shop on his way home and saw that he could have bought the same basket for £1.50. We managed to overcome the temporary loss of customer confidence and, even though I say so myself, provided spectacular after-sales customer care. Not only did our first customer get a good bike, but I subsequently introduced him to his wife, his current job, gave him a godson and performed godfatherly duties to his eldest son. Call me old-fashioned, but you don't get this level of service from the bike shops of today.

Looking at the current explosion of bike shops, I sometimes wonder what might have happened had we stuck with it.

November 2014

Red Light

I wait. Patiently.

The road is empty. The pavement deserted. The pedestrian who pressed the button has disappeared. I wonder what possessed him or her to change the lights when there was no traffic on the road. Irritating fucker. Maybe it was a reflex action without thought or consideration. Only after pressing and seeing the sign saying 'please wait' did they realise they didn't have to. Off they trotted. A few moments later I arrive to face the consequences of their action.

The hill on Plough Road offers a great start to my commute. It enables me to build up an early head of steam and a momentum that can carry me through the first couple of miles of my journey. A good start like that generally means the ride in is a real joy. I fly to work and am nicely set up for the day ahead.

The pedestrian crossing is right at the bottom of that hill on Plough Road. I seethe as I wait. A good day has just become not so good. Not only did it take some effort to stop, but it's going to be hard work starting up again. It might as well have started to rain.

I wonder if the person who did this to me has any idea of what they have done. I look around to see if someone is hiding around the corner, chuckling to themselves at how they brought that cyclist to a shuddering halt for no good reason. I can't see anyone. Maybe this is the work of a malevolent town planner who has programmed the lights on deserted crossings to automatically turn red whenever a cyclist appears.

I continue to wait. I must be in a Guinness ad. Tick, tock.

I had tried to do that cool cyclist thing of balancing on my stationary bike without putting my feet on the ground. Only as I began to topple did it occur to me that I had failed to factor in that I am a portly middle-aged man susceptible to the pull of gravity. Falling off your bike is not cool. Thankfully there were no witnesses.

The reason there are no witnesses is that it is 6:05 am. The reason I am waiting at a pedestrian-less pedestrian crossing on Plough Road at 6:05 am is that my wife, bless her cotton socks, set her alarm for 5:45 am. I have no idea why she gets up so early, but because she does, so do I. I am programmed to get up immediately when the alarm goes off, and, as I now shower at work, I am out of bed and on my bike before I know what has happened. Only when waiting at the Plough Road pedestrian crossing does it occur to me that I am very tired and it is very early.

The light is still red.

Time to confess. I have employed a touch of artistic license in this blog. I do stop at 99% of red lights (well, maybe 97%). However if you, dear reader, seriously think I would wait patiently at a pedestrian crossing on a deserted road at 6:05 am you must have me down as one of those law-abiding public school twats that I have spent my whole life pretending I'm not.

There are 24 potential red lights between Elsynge Rd SW18 and Valentine Place SE1. One every 335 metres. For a high-performance cyclist like myself who can take some time to build up a head of steam that's a problem. Often I've only just got going when I have to stop.

Stopping at lights evokes a strange combination of self-righteousness and self-consciousness. Self-righteousness because it proves I am a good person. I'm not one of those idiots who jumps lights. I imagine that I must be receiving admiring looks from those inside the car stopped beside me, who have been obliged to reappraise their previously poor perception of cyclists.

Self-consciousness because I must look like a law-abiding public school twat. Standing obediently in front of a light that has changed colour simply because it has been programmed to do so every few minutes when there's no-one crossing, or about to cross, the road and while other cyclists casually breeze past makes me feel a real plonker. I wouldn't feel this way if I was behind the wheel of a car because 1) it is deeply ingrained that under no circumstance does a car jump a red light and 2) I might get nicked. But for some reason, it's not quite so clearcut when on a bike. If pedestrians can exercise their discretion and ignore red lights at their own crossings, then surely a cyclist (evolutionarily much closer to a pedestrian than a car) can in certain circumstances do the same. I know this way of thinking is wrong and makes me a bad person, but this is why I have been known on occasion to dismount and pretend I'm a pedestrian. It also explains why 3% of the time, I ignore the light.

The one light in particular I disobey is the only one of the twenty-four for cyclists. Its red illuminated shape is even that of a bicycle. This light is the coup de grace of the town planner who hates cyclists. You have to admire his guile. His brilliant concept is 'Give them their very own light to make them feel important and to make us appear cyclist-friendly, but then fuck with the timing to really mess with them.' Even our two cycling knights, Sir Chris Hoy and Sir Bradley Wiggins would struggle to get to the other side in the nano-second that the light is green. You could put a gold medal on the other side and tell them both that the winner can claim it providing they got to it before the light turned back red and be confident that neither would come anywhere close. To have any chance of making it even halfway across this bicycle crossing you have to be primed to accelerate from a standing start at the kind of speed even eludes Lewis Hamilton.

Then, and this is where the town planner has excelled himself, next to the cyclist crossing is a pedestrian crossing. The pedestrian crossing is programmed to give sufficient time not only for a little old lady to cross, but also to host an impromptu tea party with her friends in the middle of the road. She would even have time to call them over from their home a few miles away, wait patiently in the middle of the road for them to arrive and then have a good old natter with them over tea and biscuits before the pedestrian light turned red.

There is no logical reason why the bicycle crossing and the pedestrian crossing shouldn't be on the same timing as they are parallel to each other. The only conceivable explanation is that the town planner is fucking with the cyclist's head.

And then, once the old lady has packed up her tea set and long since departed, it is the turn of the traffic. When I was younger, we had a good family game (well it seemed good to my simple eight-year-old mind, but, with the benefit of hindsight, I can see it might be somewhat limited) of counting Minis on long car journeys. A six-hour drive to Penzance once produced fifty sightings (a trip that also included long intervals when I was necessarily distracted from the game to fight and argue with my younger siblings). I'm pretty sure I could smash this record of fifty Mini sightings if I played the game while waiting for the lights to change at this crossing.

It's enough to make me see red.

July 2014

Observations from America

Observations from America, inspired by my time in the States, are the thoughts of an Englishman trying to make sense of America. Here is a short selection from my archive of monthly missives back home from 2004 and 2007.

The five pieces included here are Road Trip (which documents a 24-hour journey across America with a menagerie); What to do While They Pack Your Groceries (on passing time in an American supermarket); Mr Grrrrr Fart (on trans-Atlantic miscommunication); Sub Loooootenant Buzzcut (about my son’s surprising rejection from the US military); Certified (America through the eyes of Splodge Gravatt).

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Observations from America

Road Trip

What to do while they pack your groceries

Mr Grrrrr Fart

Sub Loooootenant Buzzcut

Certified


Road Trip

Twenty-four years ago, I drove out of Chicago with my buddy (friend) Andrew. Today I’m making the return trip with a new companion at my side. The road trip is the authentic American rite of passage. Route 66, Easy Rider, this is a country that loves being on the road. No image evokes America more than a track of tarmac stretching as far as the eye can see into the Great Beyond. America has always been on the move. I’ve just read a book that argues the defining characteristic of the US of A is that it’s a country that lives in the future. The American Dream is not just wishful thinking; it’s the clarion call of a people driven by the prospect of what lies around the corner. The reason Americans work so hard is that they’re striving for a better future. The reason they tend to be so optimistic and positive is that they don’t want to delay their progress by getting stuck in the here and now. Theirs is a promised land, and they want to be damn sure they’re on their way, on the road to somewhere. 

0.0 miles: Turn ignition, check passengers are secure and set off towards our new world in Chicago.

0.5 miles: Cast glance at lettuce-chewing companion in passenger seat and wonder what kind of personal journey could have led to a road trip with a Guinea Pig. 

3.1 miles: Seven minutes on clock. Pass Starbucks. Rude not to stop. Big queue, as always. Finally depart thirty-eight minutes later clutching a couple of Grande Cappuccinos for road. Forty-five minutes to complete first 3.1 miles. Calculate an eight-and-a-half-day journey to Chicago at this rate. Drive out of Darien Starbucks. Lump in throat. Never like saying goodbye. 

15.0 miles: Exit Connecticut, enter New York State.

26.2 miles: Hit traffic jam. Hate traffic jams. Left London to escape traffic. 

30.1 miles: Cross Hudson River. Huge. Big threatening skies. Glance at menagerie in back. Hyperactive Hamster beside itself with excitement, Hamster never done exercise wheel at 60mph before. 

40.2 miles: Exit New York State, enter New Jersey. Traffic clears. Springsteen country. Everyone driving faster. Turn volume up and put foot on gas. Reminded of earlier road trip twenty-four years ago as foot-loose teenager. Go to run fingers through hair. Nothing there. Sink into balding middle-aged depression for next eleven miles.

70.8 miles: Join Route 80. Will be on Route 80 for next 726.9 miles (just short of length of British Isles). One road. Don’t do things by half over here.

75.5 miles: 72.4 miles since last Cappuccino. Too long.

76.0 miles: Stop at Hibernia Diner. Walk in (to another world). Place goes quiet. Everyone knows everyone. No-one knows me. Order white coffee. No sugar. Young waitress uncertain. Wary of creature from another planet. Goes to make coffee, but double-checks strange order. ‘You want lite coffee with no sugar?’ Remember ‘white’ coffee confuses Americans. Become concerned that may have inadvertently presented myself as a white supremacist. Drink coffee very quickly.

118.8 miles: Exit New Jersey, enter Pennsylvania. Slower.

140.4 miles: Undertake. Catch Guinea Pig’s eye. Guinea Pig unimpressed. Want to explain that everyone undertakes in America. Guinea Pig wouldn’t understand.

212.9 miles: Bleak. Late. Dark. Snowing. Sign says ‘Wild Pennsylvania’. Sign not joking.

220.3 miles: Another sign: ‘2250 feet, highest elevation on Route 80 this side of Mississippi’. All downhill from here.

223.2 miles: Snow freezes instantly on impact with windshield. Wonder what road must be like. Answer just around corner. Car stranded in thick snow on bank off verge. Do British thing and assume someone else will come to rescue. Look the other way. 

232.1 miles: Hungry. 

235.3 miles: Very hungry.

240.0 miles: Sign for ‘Twilight Diner’ at next exit. Overjoyed. Hugely hungry. 

240.2 miles: Get closer to Twilight Diner. 

240.3 miles: Rejoin Freeway.

244.7 miles: Contemplate eating Goldfish. Wonder if daughter would notice.

246.1 miles: Hallelujah. Gamble pays off. Perkins Restaurant and Diner. Different league from Twilight Diner. Free wireless Internet access. Read match-day reports from English Premiership Boxing Day fixtures. In a deserted diner in deepest Pennsylvania.

355.8 miles: Check into Holiday Inn Express with one Yorkshire Terrier, one Guinea Pig, one Hamster, two Goldfish at 10.46 pm. Sign behind Receptionist reads, ‘Maximum 3 pets’. Enter philosophical debate with Receptionist on what is a pet. Tell Receptionist that Goldfish would die if left in car overnight in sub-zero temperatures. Receptionist then tries to apply the $15 per pet surcharge on Goldfish. Yorkshire Terrier marks territory in corner of foyer.

355.8 miles: 10.59 pm. Guinea Pig, having been without water for journey, drinks for England when re-united with water bottle. Try hiding head under pillow to cut out noise of Guinea Pig’s incessant slurping. Squeak of hamster wheel starts up. Wonder if guests on other side of paper-thin wall have any idea what’s really going on.

355.8 miles: 7.30 am. Dog refuses to get in car. Dog prepared to spend rest of days in Holiday Inn Express, Brookville, Pennsylvania rather than one more minute on road. Dog does runner down Holiday Inn corridor. Give chase. Eventually corner dog behind ice machine. Drag dog into car.

377.6 miles: "Buckle up. Next million miles". Weird sign

428.0 miles: Exit Pennsylvania, enter Ohio

446.3 miles: Praise the Lord. Starbucks. The first since Darien. 441.2 miles. 17 hours, 25 minutes. Buy six grande cappuccinos. Figure if the Goldfish don’t want theirs I’ll have them. Buy Dog some Beef Jerky. 

446.5 miles: Try Beef Jerky. Spontaneously spit it out. Would rather eat dog food. Dog eying Beef Jerky as if dangerous rattlesnake.

570.2 miles: Big landscape. Isolated clusters of trees. Distant white barns. Sheen of snow. 

580.9 miles: Trailer park

583.1 miles: So this is Ohio. This is where the American election takes place.

612.9 miles: Yet another trailer park. Wonder why anyone would choose to live in a trailer. Fair enough if you’re a Bedouin, but these trailers are going nowhere. No wheels. Only time they’ll ever move is when hit by hurricane. 

666 miles: Exit Ohio, enter Indiana. 666 miles on the clock, imposing Baptist Church looming high above.

696.2 miles: Big billboard. Good clean-cut Americans with brilliant white smiles. Slogan promises ’outstanding Christian entertainment’. In God’s Country. Banish bad blasphemous thoughts.

699.0 miles: Speed limit now 70 mph. Bit racy for America. With God on your side, you can travel a little faster.

653.9 miles: This adventure a mind-blowing experience for Goldfish. Never been out of Connecticut before. Wide-eyed. Never realised another world existed beyond goldfish bowl. Will soon have forgotten where they came from. Goldfish memory span no more than three seconds. Right now, Indiana is all they know.

797.7 miles: Turn off Route 80. Goodbye, my old friend.

810.5 miles: Beginning to get industrial & grubby. Must be getting close to new home. 

825.8 miles: Can see Chicago skyline. Cross bridge to a welcome to Chicago by Mayor Richard. M Daley. Must have passed into Illinois without noticing. Have also somehow passed into a different time zone. Chicago is in a bygone hour.

825.9 miles: Hit traffic jam. Begin to realise that condemned to a life of traffic jams. Unfortunate consequence of being married to a Big Conurbation Queen Bee.

834.0 miles: Arrive outside 2632 North Lakewood Drive at precisely 5.00 pm. Twenty-six hours on the road and thirty seconds within rendezvous time. Pleased as punch with punctuality. 

834.0 miles: Enter new home. Expect hero’s welcome. Unlike Scott, I made it alive. Also delivered five pets, not one dead. Family too busy to notice arrival. Then daughter sees Dog. Ecstatic welcome for pets. Driver still not seen. Perhaps they think pets made their own incredible journey. Trudge back to car and start to unload luggage. It’s a dog’s life.

January 2006

What to do while they pack your groceries

Is that oversized pack of 24 Cottonelle toilet rolls, precariously balanced on the Paul Mitchell Tea Tree Special Shampoo (with its unique combination of tea tree oil, peppermint and lavender for that refreshing fragrance experience), going to get traction? Or will it be left hanging on the hard end of the checkout counter?

A twenty-first-century hunter-gatherer surveying his kill. Shopping cart unloaded faster than Checkout Girl can process, I pause. 

I picture my cubs back home, wild with excitement when they hear how I trapped a carton of Dibbs Caramel Ice Cream in the frozen section. I puff my chest out a little further and smile proudly at Checkout girl.

What to do now? 

Back in England, there would be no time for reflection. I would have to rush through to the other end of the counter in a hopeless race against Checkout Girl. No contest. Groceries would pile up in a car crash at the end of the conveyor belt, eggs would crack under the weight of a Boddingtons twelve-pack, freshly baked loaves of bread become horribly disfigured, grapes pop spectacularly, and pots of yoghurts threaten to explode under the concerted pressure of two hundred pounds of Supermarket shop.

Worse, one of those floating assistants would select me as the shopper who needs help and volunteer to pack my purchases. Frozen pizza wedged up against warm bread and a box of eggs underneath twenty-four cans of Diet Pepsi; they mean well but have no idea. I used to make sure I looked especially unkempt before embarking on a supermarket shop back home, to scare off the well-meaning, but utterly hopeless bag-packers that occupy the lower echelons of the British Supermarket food chain.

In America, of course, it's very different.

A dedicated professional packer is already waiting to bring order to the chaos of my shop.

'Paper or plastic?'

'You what?'

'Paper or plastic?'

'I'm sorry, but I have no idea what you're asking me. Is this some kind of game?'

'Do you want paper or plastic bags, Sir?'

'Oh, sorry, plastic, of course.' I'm don't want a bag that can't transport the weight of my aerosol cans to my gas-guzzling SUV - saving the planet not my problem. Leave that to the next generation.

But what now? Cart unloaded, Checkout Girl checking everything out, Packer expertly packing it all at the other end, I'm redundant.

An uncomfortable feeling. 

As an Englishman, I'm ill at ease with all this service. I feel I should help, but I'm neither needed nor wanted. I have no idea what to do. 

If I were American, I would start talking. 

Instead, I just stand there, rocking back on my heels a little and smiling weakly at Checkout Girl. I could talk about the weather. But we haven't been introduced. She did say 'Hi' Does that constitute a formal introduction? Her name badge tells me she's called Kristiana. I couldn't possibly just start talking to her. 

How old is she? I'm going to find out in a minute. I'm guessing twenty-two. Exactly half my age. Wish that thought hadn't happened. I'm about to find out. The wine has made it to the top of the conveyor belt. And, yes, oh, I am surprised, under twenty-one. In America, alcohol is too dangerous for anyone under twenty-one to handle, even in an unopened bottle. An underage checkout girl, or guy for that matter, is not allowed to touch the stuff and so has to call for their Supervisor to process the purchase. 

The English equivalent is money. A £50 cash-back at Sainsbury's requires supervisor authorisation. Our hang-up is money: America's is alcohol. There's a law here in Illinois that refuses a drinking license to any restaurant that opens up within two hundred yards of a Day Care Centre. That's quite some distance for a baby to crawl. Even when chasing a shot of Tequila.

What am I doing here, anyway? This is no place for a man. I've been conned into doing the Supermarket run. My wife told me that it was manly to go foraging for food, but the only men I can see are in tow. My wife would know what to do while waiting for the shopping to be packed. I guess she would do what she always does. Play Space Invaders on her Blackberry.

I look around a bit.

Men think about sex every three seconds. Not here they don't. 

I think about not thinking about sex and wonder if it counts as thinking about sex.

'Dum, di dum di dum dum. When the sun beats down, and I lie on the bench, I can always hear them talk. Me I'm just a lawnmower you can tell me by the way I walk'. Where did that come from? A nonsensical 1973 rock lyric. One of my favourites. Whatever happens in my life, I will always remember these words. 'There's always been Ethel' comes next. Even as my memory fades in older age, this will be one of the last fragments to go. My last words could well be 'There's always been Ethel'.

I get my loyalty discount card out of my wallet ready to pay. Okay done that, so what now?

I choose not to pick my nose. It could be embarrassing. An armed robbery might take place just in front of me, and the grainy security camera images that subsequently appear on national TV would catch me in the top left corner with a finger wedged up my left nostril.

I think again about not thinking about sex.

How much have I spent? I'm betting four hundred twelve dollars, sixty-three cents. I'm good at guessing the total bill. No idea how much individual items cost, and deeply suspicious of anything cheap or discounted, which is pretty much everything here, but I can price a mound of groceries to within 5%. I don't subscribe to the Micawberian 'Look after the pennies, and the pounds will look after themselves' school of thought (nor, I suppose do Americans – 'look after the dollars and the cents will look after themselves' doesn't quite have the same ring). Look after the pounds, is my way of thinking, and you don't need to bother about pennies.

Is there anything left in my Starbucks cup? (Best thing about this Supermarket is the Starbucks inside.) I turn it upside down and throw back my head to drain the last remaining dregs. Checkout Girl pauses, briefly looks concerned before giving me a big American smile. Fleeting sexual thought.

I watch my carton of Good Eggs from Good Farms pass on the conveyor. I always buy Good Eggs now, ever since discovering that they print a psalm on the inside lid of the carton. Why do they do that? Are they hoping to convert me over breakfast? 

The end is nigh. Four hundred thirty-one dollars and three cents. Within five per cent. Told you I was good.

'Do you need any help, Sir?'

'What to wheel my well-packed trolley all of thirty yards to my car?'

'Yes, Sir'

'No, I think I might just about be able to manage that myself, thank you.'

February 2007

Mr Grrrrr Fart

'And your last name, Sir?'

'Gravatt.'

'Well, thank you very much, Mr Grrrrr Fart.'

There's nothing more disconcerting than to enunciate something in perfect Queen's English only to hear it horribly distorted when played back.

'It's Gra…Va…TT.' I said, with a crisp t. 

'Yes, Mr Grrrrr Fart, thank you very much.'

'Gravatt.'

'I'm sorry, Sir, what did you say?'

'Gravatt, I said Gravatt.'

'Yes, Sir.'

'My name's Gravatt, Simon Gravatt.'

A smile crept across his face. 'Yes, Sir, 007. Very good, Sir. Like it. Very cool.'

I gave up. I walked out of the shop to a 'Have a nice day, Mr Grrrrr Fart.'

New country, new identity. Back in England I was Simon Gravatt; Here I'm Mr Grrrrr Fart.

It's even worse for my wife. Her name, Rosalind, is Shakespearian (as is Macbeth's), but in its diminutive form of Ros it bemuses Americans, and so she becomes Rose Grrrr Fart. I honestly think this is why she spends so much time at work, where she uses her maiden name and her staff know that if they call her Rose, or spell her name with a 'z', they'll lose their job.

It's the a that's the problem. An a before a t plunges any Anglo-American conversation into freefall incomprehension. Two and half years here and I still can't order a glass of water. It's why I drink so much coffee and beer. It's because we, particularly us Public School types, slip an invisible r in between the a and the following consonant.

To an American ear, it sounds like, Mr Grrrrr Fart wants a gl Arse of War ter. And it makes no sense whatsoever. 

'An Arse of war? An ass of war? Who are you calling an ass of war? Are you disrespecting our troops, Mr Grrrr Fart? I won't have that kind of talk in here. We fly the flag. This is the greatest nation in the world. Where would you have been back in 1944 without our support? And where would you be now if we hadn't saved the world from Saddam Hussein? Get out, we don't need that kind of talk in here.'

I take refuge in my local Starbucks, where I'm always greeted as 'Grande Cappucino'. I like that. I am what I drink. They asked me to complete a survey there last month. It was a scheme that randomly selected customers and included the incentive of a free drink. The frequency of my Starbucks visits meant that I was randomly selected so often that I must have skewed the research results. The questionnaire wasn't designed for someone like me. For example, it asked how many times a month I go to Starbucks. I can't count that high. Better if they had asked how many times an hour. When they come to analyse the results, they're going to assume they've got a pocket of heavy drinkers in North Chicago, when in fact it's a single heavy drinker randomly selected many times. 

I've recently noticed that I'm going to the restroom (loo) with increased frequency. The ads would have me believe that I might have prostate cancer; whereas the truth is my bladder is working overtime to empty itself of an unprecedented quantity of caffeinated water and frothy milk. My son has calculated that I've increased the turnover of a small Starbucks in Lincoln Park, Chicago, by over $5,000 in this calendar year. No wonder worldwide coffee sales are up. No wonder Mr Grrrrr Fart is feeling a little wired.

Talking of wired, there was an article the other month in Wired Magazine about people who are unable to recognise human faces. I must have a mild form of this because I'm terrible at remembering faces. Not only that, but I've got a face that strangers always think they've seen before. I would have thought my particular set of facial features – balding, big-nosed, yellow-toothed, coalescing somewhat unexpectedly into a not unattractive countenance – to be a little out of the ordinary. 

Only when Sir Paul McCartney refused to believe that we hadn't met before, did I begin to accept that I am, in fact, Everyman. (I wonder if, as you become Heavyweight Boxing Champion of the World by beating the existing Heavyweight Boxing Champion of the World, whether it might also be true that you become one of the most famous men in the world when one of the most famous men in the world thinks he knows you). 

It's a terrible combination when, on the one hand, people think they've met you before and, on the other, you have no idea whether they have. And it's even worse in America where everyone behaves as if they're your best friend, even when they're complete strangers.

'Hey, Bud'. I was walking along the street minding my own business when a guy (everyone's a guy here, even the gals) greeted me as if we had been drinking companions for the past twelve years. I'd never met him before. At least I don't think I had. But I couldn't be sure.

Being English, I can never quite pluck up the courage to initiate a friendly greeting when passing people in the street. I see them approaching. I know, as this is America, we're going to exchange pleasantries. I want to be more social. I want to say 'Hi' or 'Good Evening' or 'What Ho Chap' first, but some part of me just can't do it. As soon as we're in range, I find myself instinctively glancing downwards at the ground to avoid the embarrassing possibility of eye contact with someone to whom I haven't been introduced. There's nothing I can do about it. I'm mute until they say a cheery 'Good Morning' and then I find myself repeating what they said with as much enthusiasm as is possible for someone of Anglo-Saxon stock. But when they say 'Hey Bud', I can only grunt in reply. (I could never, ever say 'Hey Bud'.)

But it's when they say 'Good morning Mr Grrrrrr Fart?' that I know I must know them.

December 2006

Sub Loooootenant Buzzcut

'Good afternoon Sir. Is that Mr Grrrrr Fart?'

'Gravatt'

'Mr Grrrrr Fart, Sir, this is Sub-Loooootenant Buzzcut. I'm calling to advise that your son's interview for a place at the Rickover Military Academy is scheduled for February 26th, nine hundred hours. Sharp. Thank you, Sir.'

And with that, the line went dead. Communication completed, phone call terminated.

Why I wondered, would Ros apply for our son and heir to be educated by the US Army? She can be hot on discipline and prefers his hair short, but sending him to the US military seems a little extreme. I can understand why she kept it from me. I'm a pacifist who hates regimentation and being ordered around. At school, unlike all my friends, I conscientiously objected to the CCF, preferring to pass my afternoons in the company of senile old ladies rather than dressed up as a soldier, marching endlessly around the School Quad with some repressed fascist barking instructions at me.

That kind of attitude doesn't go down well in these parts. The other weekend someone knocked over a flower pot on our street. Such a petty act of vandalism, although sadly commonplace back home, is rare in America. So rare that it could well have been an accident. Although not according to the neighbour, who placed a large piece of white plyboard at the scene of the crime with the following inscription in big black bold marker pen.

'This is how somebody honors our troops on Memorial Day!!'

At first, I thought this was something of a non sequitur. I didn't immediately spot the link between a fallen flowerpot and the armed services. I then noticed the red, white and blue flowers on the pavement and realised it must have been intended as a floral tribute to those lost in the war. There is an argument to say that a felled flowerpot is a more poignant and elegant commemoration, but I wasn't going to try this line on our rabidly patriotic neighbours.

I don't get the 'Honor our troops' mantra. Politically it translates as 'Send more and more of them to their deaths in the Middle East'. A primary case for continuing the war appears to that it would dishonour the troops to withdraw. By my book, the best way of honouring them would be to bring the poor bastards back while they're still in one piece. But here the politicians tie themselves in terrible knots and contrive to continue to make the world a more dangerous place out of a misguided notion of honour.

Why should the troops be honoured anyway? I'm not a religious man, but I'm with Jesus when he said: "Blessed are the Peacemakers" (or was it the cheesemakers?). In my experience, troops tend to be uncouth yobs in uniform. Which is why I wasn't best pleased to find that my wife wanted Jay to one day become General Grrrrr Fart.

Pacifist principles out the window, I went to war that evening with my wife.

She said she had no idea what I was on about. She asked if I had forgotten to take my medication that day. She told me in no uncertain terms that she hadn't applied to send Jay to Rickover Military Academy.

When the card confirming the interview arrived by post a couple of days later, we assumed it must be a case of mistaken identity. (For an organisation that has ended up in Iraq when chasing a target in Afganistan, it seemed a credible explanation.) And so we ignored it.

Sometime later, we received notification that, after his successful interview, Jay would be permitted to sit the entrance exam. This got me thinking what kind of entrance exam an organisation that has George Bush as its Commander in Chief could possibly set.

I called Sub-Loooootenant Buzzcut to advise him that our son would not be joining their school. He was disappointed. "Are you sure? He gave such a good interview." It occurred to me then we might not have the right guys tracking down Osama Bin Laden.

A few days later, Sub-Loooootenant Buzzcut was back on the phone to give us the date of Jay's Military School examination. I tried to remind him of our conversation, but he was having none of it. "Fourteen hundred hours sharp. Make sure he's there."

Dogged persistence in the face of insurmountable odds or sheer incompetence? You decide.

A few weeks later, Jay received a letter informing him that he had scored 71% in an exam he hadn't attended. This mark is below the high standard required by the Military.

I was impressed that Jay had got that much. I never got 71%. Even in those exams I attended. My highest 'in absentia' result was an 'X' in Biology O level. (Not many people have an 'X' at O level. Perhaps my proudest academic achievement. I have the rare distinction of a full set of O level grades – A, B, C, D, E, U and X).

Jay's 71% in an exam he never sat has to be viewed in the context of American education, a system where (as our daughter has demonstrated) it's possible to get 105%. In Mathematics. One hundred and five out of a hundred. Positive reinforcement takes precedence over mathematical integrity.

By comparison, Jay only got 100% in his end of year Maths exam, which although an impressive achievement is not quite what it seems as he got a couple of questions wrong. By my book, this is not 100%, but this being America, the marks were re-adjusted so that the top score counts as 100% and the other marks reassessed relative to that score.

Everyone's a winner in America.

In England, where high exam scores are assumed to be a sign of lowering standards, everyone's a loser.

When is 100% not 100%? a) When you win additional bonus points, b) When it's the top score, c) When you buy doughnuts from your teacher.

Jay's French class were offered an additional credit for every doughnut that they brought from the French department. At that time the wealthiest kid in class was trailing in the class averages with a low C, much to the concern of his parents who pretty much paid for him to buy a whole shop's worth of doughnuts and catapult his class average to a high A grade.

High School examinations here, with more of an emphasis on rote learning rather than applied learning, are multiple-choice. Even English. (Was Hamlet a) mad, b) a psychopath, c) a loser, d) a romantic, e) on hallucinatory drugs?) I would have struggled to pull off my 'U' in America where even randomly answering the questions is statistically likely to guarantee a 25%. One American child we know who recently moved to the UK with an excellent academic record at a leading New England private school was traumatised to the point of catatonia when he scored 9% in his first exam.

No surprise, perhaps, that the brightest boy in Jay's school is returning next year to his home in China because his parents feel that he will get a better education over there than here.

To graduate out of Middle School and be accepted into High School, every student here has to pass a test on the Constitution. Not just pass it, but get at least 90%. Being novices, we took this at face value and dedicated two weeks to test our son to destruction on the US constitution. While considering it to be a great way of ensuring that every American citizen has a good grounding in the cornerstone principles of their country, we were nonetheless daunted by the scale of the challenge of knowing every US senator and constitutional amendment. I also couldn't understand how the less academic students ever managed to get out of Middle School. That is until the test came about.

Jay, fortified by intense cramming and parental pressure, passed. Unlike most of his fellow students. But they weren't overly concerned, for the next day they were given the very same test. Not only that, but they had been given both the questions and the answers the day before. Those that failed on the second day were again given the answers to the questions they now knew they would be asked the following day. This pattern was repeated every day for a week until the school was able to announce that all its students had passed. Jay's hard work had at least spared him the mind-numbing tedium of a Groundhog examination.

In America, failure is not only not an option; it's also bloody difficult to pull off.

All things considered then, a rejection from Rickover Military Academy must surely rank as one of Jay's finest achievements.

July 2007

Certified

The bastards left me out in the run again last night. It’s no joke out here, I’m telling you. All manner of unspeakable danger comes out at nightfall. There’s been a spate of coyote attacks on small dogs in the locality. A coyote would have me for breakfast, no trouble. Even that bloody Yorkshire Terrier of theirs treads cautiously at night. I’ve seen them trying to get her to go out last thing at night and she digging her heels in. She might be a pain in the arse, but she’s not stupid that dog. Just imagine what it’s like for me stuck out here, if it’s so bad that a dog would prefer to cross its legs all night long than venture out for a quick pee. And I can’t run as she can. Not that running would do me much good in my two-foot run. I’ve got this lurid purple jelly mould for a summerhouse. (Yeah, I know, it’s embarrassing. I had no say in the matter. Guinea pigs tend not to get to choose). I hide in there, hoping against hope that I’ll survive.

Bright purple isn’t great if you want to be inconspicuous. I’m told coyotes are colour blind, but anything that can’t distinguish a purple monstrosity stuck out in the middle of a green lawn and glowing like nuclear fall-out in the moonlight would have to be certifiably blind. Anyway, it’s a bit of an irrelevance. They could smell my fear for a mile off. Not to put too fine a point on it, but I was shitting myself all night long.

But the coyotes aren’t even the worst of it. It’s the snakes that give me the shivers. Black rat snakes, copperhead rattlesnakes and timber rattlesnakes, they’re all to be found in this neck of the woods. Up to eight feet long. Jesus fucking Christ, do you know what eight feet look like to an eleven-inch guinea pig? They can slime into anything. Just thinking about it is making me come all funny. The sheer horror of coming face-to-face with an eight-foot jet-black constrictor in my little purple jelly mould is just too much.

It’s amazing I survived. I was gnawing frantically on the bars of my run desperately trying to attract their attention as they were sitting there all la-di-da on their nice new patio set while night slowly fell. I even started squeaking, but they didn’t notice. The bastards. Too preoccupied with themselves and their overcooked barbecue food. Fucking cannibals, why they can’t eat grass I’ll never know.

I’ve no idea how I made it through the night. Not only was I spared the coyotes, the black rat snakes, the raccoons and the black bears that all inhabit this part of the world, but my heart held firm. We guinea pigs are prone to malfunctioning tickers. One shock too much and it’s goodnight Vienna. Because of this dodgy lineage, I had to have a heart test before coming out here to the States. Apparently, the sound of those 747 engines revving up is too much for some of my kind, and we’re inclined to keel over even before we’re out of London air space. Guinea pigs weren’t designed for the jet age. Wanting to minimise their liability for inadvertently killing a precious passenger, British Airways insisted I had a full medical before they would take me. I passed. And now I’ve got a certificate with my name in big, bold type. Splodge Gravatt, it reads. It was the proudest moment of my life. Not many guinea pigs have been honoured with a certificate.

I wish my Mum had still been around to see it. I think of her a lot. Guinea pigs aren’t supposed to think, but I do. There’s fuck all else to do. I contemplate the purpose of it all. Why are we here? What’s the point? All that existential stuff churns over in my head as I sit chewing grass outside my purple plastic house. I’m not sure I’ve got any of the answers, but then anyone who thinks they know it all probably doesn’t. People like that George Bush, who goes around proclaiming to be God’s instrument on earth. This is what I don’t get. If mankind considers itself to be so great, having travelled to the moon, discovered the theory of relativity and split the atom then how can it possibly justify voting that Texan half-wit to be one of its leaders. It just doesn’t compute. And they think guinea pigs are stupid.

I’ve done well for myself. That’s the other thing I find myself reflecting on as the sun beats down on my purple plastic bench. Me, I’m just guinea pig you can tell by the way I walk… sorry, I lost myself in some old Genesis lyrics for a minute. I was saying I’ve down well for myself. I came from a broken home. Not so much broken as ripped apart by a little shit of a Jack Russell. You grow up very quickly when you witness your Mum being torn to shreds in a South London backyard by an ugly inbred crew-cut canine with a Napoleon complex. I’ve never had much time for dogs after that trauma. (I have to tell you that I struggled to suppress a smile the other day when I heard a Darien Dachshund had been carried away in the claws of a hawk). There was nothing I could do about it, although that doesn’t alleviate the guilt. I really could do with some therapy. I need to know it wasn’t my fault. The trauma even put me in care for a few months. But funnily it was the making of me. They say you only really grow up when your parents die. I decided, there and then, to do something with my life. I determined to break out of the cycle of urban deprivation and violence that has plagued my family.

I found myself a nice place in Wandsworth before becoming the first of my family for many generations to cross the Atlantic. The boy’s done good, as they say. Actually, no-one’s quite sure whether I’m a boy or a girl, least of all me, but that’s a moot point. I’m an upwardly mobile guinea pig. Like Mr McGregor, at the end of Trainspotting, I chose a better life. I’ve now got my very own deluxe two-room cage complete with ensuite toilet facilities; a wall-mounted drinking unit; a bowl in which you can do all manner of things sure in the knowledge that it’ll always be cleaned up and returned full of food the next day; a summer run with a never-ending supply of grass; and a separate winter residence. Born out of wedlock into the jaws of poverty, I now live in the relative luxury of New World pastures. I’ve got three cages and, the curse of the nouveau-riche I know, but it’s more than my parents ever had, I even have two of those hideous lurid fall-out shelters. I’ve lost touch with my eighty-three siblings (we’re not as bad as rabbits, but my mother was a bit of a goer), but I’d be willing to wager that none of them have their own place, nor a certificate with their name in big, bold letters. As Mr McGregor says, you choose your future, and I chose a better life.

This what I reflect on, as I chew on the grass. I’ve done my evolutionary bit by improving my lot in life. My example has shown that it’s possible to improve yourself.

I’m the Christopher Columbus of the guinea pig world.

They don’t know what to make of me over here. Most of them think I’m a supersize hamster with an eating disorder. It’s quite degrading being confused for such runt of a rodent, but I remind myself that these people voted for George Bush and so they’re a shilling short of a five bob note. I mean do I look like the type that would expend energy on a wheel that’s going nowhere? That hamster of theirs gets on my nerves. I don’t know why they brought it over. I would have left it behind myself. Every bloody night it’s doing its exercises, swinging across the bars of its cage, like fucking Tarzan and then on to its squeaky wheel. One night the dimwit forgot for a brief moment it was on the wheel and stopped running. I nearly did my heart in, laughing. It was whisked around by the wheel before being ejected at high speed into the wall of its cage. I say cage, but in fact, it’s more a cheap moulded plastic cell. Whatever you think of the Yanks, you’ve got to admit that they’re better than the South Americans. I can’t tell you how relieved I was to see the back of that Peruvian nanny. They eat guinea pigs south of the Equator, you know. I never liked the way she used to give me the evil eye. I’m sure she was sizing me up for her next Sunday roast. At least she would have been, had she been able to cook. We guinea pigs originate from South America. We escaped the bastards once and I, for one, want nothing to do with those Latinos.

The dictionary says I’m “a domesticated tailless South American cavy, originally raised for food. It no longer occurs in the wild and is typically kept as a pet or for laboratory purposes”. I don’t see why they have to go on about the lack of a tail. It’s not relevant. Humans aren’t described as tailless in the dictionary so why the fuck should we be? Why doesn’t it say ‘a domesticated trunkless South American cavy’ (whatever the fuck a cavy may be)? Or ‘domesticated hornless’? It doesn’t say that because it’s an utterly gratuitous feature, or lack of feature, that’s why. And anyway I’m not domesticated. Put me in their living room, and I’ll crap all over the place. And what’s with the laboratory purposes? You’re sadly mistaken if you think I’m going to sit there smoking forty a day and get injected with all manner of untested pharmaceuticals for the sake of science.

I’m getting myself in a state. I shouldn’t be writing this anyway. I’m a guinea pig for fuck’s sake. I’ve got nothing to say. All I want to do is eat grass.

Splodge Gravatt, 2003-2007. RIP

August 2005

Personal stuff
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Personal stuff

My writing journey

I’ve no idea why, but I’ve always enjoyed writing. My old English teacher once remarked of me, ‘he’s a poet and don’t know it.’ I certainly didn’t, but it got me thinking. A few years later I saw an ad for an IBM laptop with a headline that read ‘John Grisham’s pad’ and a picture of what I thought looked like the best workplace in the world: a writing desk on a veranda overlooking the most beautiful lake. That also got me thinking.

So here I am, a lifetime later, writing this short biography on my veranda with a view (although, sadly, no lake). Writing has been a hobby rather than my profession. But now that I’ve had the good fortune to make a few pennies from selling my stake in consultancy business I co=founded, I’m able to devote myself to a writer’s life.

The aim of my writing is to make you laugh, but I’ll settle for the occasional smile. I welcome comments or feedback, and if you enjoy any of the pieces here, please do share them with your friends.


Scabies on steroids

Ros and I have collaborated as a creative team for the past 15 years to produce our annual Christmas letters, which seek to summarise the previous year in a graphic and innovative way. These letters now have quite a following amongst our friends.

I thought I would include them here, mainly to remind us of years gone by, but also possibly to amuse you if you’ve a few minutes to kill. I particularly enjoyed being reminded of the entry for September 2020. Ros and Jay contract scabies in The Hamptons. Ros is misdiagnosed and given steroids. Ros becomes a New York medical case history on what happens when you put scabies on steroids.

On My Mind
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On My Mind

Who the fuck is Simon?

RIP Annie Nightingale. In my teenage years I was obsessed with her. Still am. She was the ultra cool indie rock DJ way before indie rock had been invented.

I’m not sure how or why this came about, but around 1978 a couple of my school friends had an invitation to interview Annie Nightingale. I was horrified to hear that they didn’t even know who she was. I asked them to send her my love, which, to their credit, they did. Annie replied, ‘who the fuck is Simon?’ (Impressively colourful language to use in front of a couple of sixteen year-olds!) I was made up. She may not have known who I was, but she had said my name.

Five years later she said it again. I was listening to her Sunday night request show in my Warrington apartment when, to my great surprise and excitement, she said, ‘this one is for Simon in Warrington from Amanda in Portsmouth’ and then played Wild Thing by The Troggs. January 17, 2023


Perfumed bottom

We’re working on plans to upgrade the property we recently bought in the Cotswolds. The only item I’ve requested has been met with ridicule from my wife and our interior designer. I thought a bidet represented the height of cosmopolitan sophistication, but apparently not. My argument that having a bidet in your bathroom has the same cachet as being fluent in French fell on stony ground. I was told they are old-fashioned and uncool.

A compromise has been proposed: A state of the art Japanese lavatory that does everything a bidet does and more. Apparently it can even perfume your bottom. Now that’s something that might hold me in good stead as I meet our new neighbours. ‘What a lovely smell’, they might say. ‘Yes, that’s my bottom,’ I’ll explain. December 21, 2023


Hole in my head

I got a hole in my head where my tumour once was. At least I think I must have. My tumour was apparently 6cm x 5cm, which is like having egg on your head. So now that they’ve removed the tumour, I presumably have an egg-sized hole in my head.

It’s a shame I can’t access it as it could have been a useful storage area. I lost a pair of airpods out of my pocket last week, If they’d been in my head instead I would still have them.

Otherwise, I’m not sure what to do with the hole in my head. December 9, 2023


Sparkle

My daughter looked at me expectantly, waiting for the punchline. Only when she realised there was none and I was being serious did she laugh.

Objectively, I know that I don’t have much hair (well, I do, but it’s all in the wrong places), but, as far as I’m concerned, I have a full head of hair. Which is why I wash it every day. My daughter assumed I was joking when I told her this. It had cropped up in conversation because I complained we had the wrong kind of shampoo.

I don’t know why I do it. Maybe I’m kidding myself. But at least when I go out into the world, I know the few follicles I have left will sparkle. April 25, 2022


Has my beard made me even more irresistible to woman?

‘Even more’ might be stretching it, as women have never tended to throw themselves at me. Sad to confess, but I’m a resistive type. The bearded Charles Darwin claimed that women were charmed and excited by facial hair, but I have to say, in the four years I’ve had a beard, I’ve seen no evidence of this. However, all is not lost, as a recent scientific survey has proved that beards have protective qualities. Not only can they cushion a blow, but they also help disguise the whereabouts of a man’s chin, making it harder for an aggressor to know precisely where to land his punch.

Should a man in a pub ever become upset because he thinks his wife is making eyes at me, I will be able to tell him, with great conviction, that he is mistaken. I will explain that – despite my hirsuteness and general manliness – I pose no threat whatsoever. Should he choose to disbelieve me, another study suggests that bearded men are perceived as untrustworthy; I will at least be protected from his blows by my beard. December 26, 2021


The Christmas card rites of passage

The tradition of sending Christmas cards is dying a slow death. We will undoubtedly be the last generation to send them, and our descendants will never experience the Christmas card rite of passage.

The first cards that you send are a signifier of adulthood. No longer are you a meagre appendage on your parents’ cards. Over the next few years, your list becomes a tangible measure of your social universe and popularity. The main question is, “Is this person still a friend of mine?”

Life then becomes more complicated. You need to merge your list with your partner’s list, act as significant as buying a house together, and negotiate whether to sign jointly or individually. You also need to remember the name of your friends’ new partners and hope they’re still an item by the time they receive your card.

The complexity then ratchets up a notch as not only do you need to sign every card with your partner’s and children’s names, but you also need to remember the names of your friends’ children. (This is a time when people commonly suffer a mid-life crisis.) This period can last over twenty years, during which time the question that looms larger each year is “are they still together?” (If the answer is no, then – “are we allowed to send a card to their ex?”).

As time passes, you also have to decide how long to continue sending cards to people that didn’t send you one the previous year. (This requires keeping a list of every card you receive in some primitive friendship loyalty scheme.) The next dilemma is whether to continue including the names of by-now-adult children who have undoubtedly left home.

Finally, the potentially most treacherous phase – which we’re now entering – is defined by the question of “are they still alive?” So far, as far as I’m aware, this year, I’ve sent just the one card to a dead person (or so I’ve deduced from the card I’ve just received from his widow that’s missing his name). December 20, 2021


I’ve shopped my wife for a crime she didn’t commit

A week after shopping my wife for a crime she did commit, I’ve turned her in for something she didn’t do. I responded to a letter from the Metropolitan Police, scarily entitled Notice of Intended Prosecution, with the online equivalent of ‘not me guv, it was her’. Shortly afterwards, I realised it was, in fact, me that had done it, but the system didn’t allow me to correct my accusation. The crime was speeding on the road to my wife’s father, a journey she makes frequently. Only after telling the police that she was the culprit did I remember that I had driven that morning. This leaves us in a bit of a pickle. My wife is potentially facing two prosecutions, and having already attended two speed education courses (which clearly haven’t worked), I can only assume that she’s now facing jail time. The thought of my wife doing time for a crime I committed doesn’t bear thinking about. I’ll lose every credit I’ve ever earned for helping out with essential tasks like putting out the rubbish. In all likelihood, I, too, face imprisonment for a false declaration. It could be a bleak Christmas.

I don’t want to downplay my guilt, but I was only driving at 24mph in a 20mph zone on an empty road early on a Sunday morning. It seems a little punitive. I was once fined in Switzerland for driving 32kph in a temporary 30kph zone. It was absurdly expensive once the hire company had added all their handling fees on top of the original penalty, but although I railed against it, I accepted it. The Swiss like their rules and are very precise. I was breaking the speed limit and so needed to be punished. But I’ve come to understand that rules are there to be broken in this country. Furthermore, they don’t necessarily apply to everyone. I would have expected that a four mph transgression is within the acceptable margin for error, but no, it seems instead that our family will be torn apart for it. December 8, 2021


A busy man

A glance at my calendar suggests this is a busy week, by my standards. “By my standards” is the key clause of that sentence. Nowadays, I can count the number of emails I receive each day on a single hand. A few years ago, I would have needed to be a centipede to make such a claim. (Yes, I know centipedes don’t have fingers, but you get the point.) My diary suggests a busy week simply because it contains at least one entry a day. However, closer inspection reveals less a full life than that I’m existing in an expanse of emptiness. Tuesday’s diary entry reminded me to watch a football match on TV (as if I needed reminding). No other commitments on the whole of Tuesday. Wednesday has three entries – our gardener at 8:30, put out the rubbish before 10:00 and the cleaner at 11:00. I’ve got a Waitrose delivery on Thursday, Freddie’s Flowers and Cook deliveries on Friday. The only vaguely interesting appointment is an online interview with Jonathan Franzen by the Guardian Book Club on Monday. That’s it. That’s my busy week. I’m hoping it will be quieter next week. There’s an adage that says if you want something done, ask a busy person. Well, I have to say, on that count, ask my wife. There’s no chance of it getting done if you ask me. Not with my schedule. November 24, 2021


We will not serve you

Is it me, or is the world grinding to a halt?

Two weeks ago, Sainsbury’s wouldn’t let me log into our account. They had introduced a two-stage verification system but failed to activate the second step of sending me a log-in code. I opened a Waitrose account, and Sainsbury’s lost a customer of 40 years standing.

Last week Addison Lee failed to turn up to take my daughter to the airport for her transatlantic flight. I had to drop everything to get her to Heathrow in time. I will think twice about using Addison Lee in future.

Today, British Airways have decided they don’t want to sell me air tickets. Their Executive Club website says it’s being upgraded and will be ready by Wednesday, November 17th. Today is Wednesday, November 17th, and it’s not ready. I called them to book my tickets over the phone; the operator said she couldn’t get on to the system. She said it would be fixed by 3:00 pm. It’s now 5:00 pm, and it’s still not working. I’m considering flying easyJet instead. November 17, 2021


Our dog’s a pussy

And the cat’s top dog. The dog is pathetically keen to please; the cat doesn’t give a fuck. If the dog is in our way, she’ll shift position to let us through. The cat won’t. We can step over him as far as he’s concerned: it’s our problem, not his. If the cat decides to eat the dog’s food, he’ll simply push her aside. The dog then watches him with an expression that says, ‘I can’t believe this is happening to me.’ If the cat wants to initiate a fight, he’ll cuff the dog in the face with his paw. If the cat then gets bored of that fight, he’ll jump out of reach and look disdainfully at his adversary, with a slow triumphant sweep of his tail. The dog is all bark and no bite. She’ll power into the garden, yapping loudly to ward off intruders, but if any of those intruders happen to stand their ground, she’s quick to retreat. The cat’s a killer. A silent assassin, he doesn’t make a song and dance about; he just leaves the bodies of his victims out on display to show that he means business. It’s truly a dog’s life for the dog with a cat amongst the pigeons.

 

 

 

 

 

October 21, 2021


Beware of Greeks bearing tennis racquets

This week I suffered my second successive defeat on a tennis court to a Greek opponent, a twentysomething who might have modelled for classical statues in earlier times. He had been pumping iron in the gym immediately before our game. He served first. I heard what sounded like a crack of a whip and felt a rush of air as a flash of yellow whizzed past my backhand side. Ace. 15 love. I’m nine months off my bus pass: How was I supposed to react to something travelling that fast?

There should be a speed limit on serves, especially when the elderly are on the receiving end. Such a powerful serve presented me with multiple problems, not least assessing whether it had been in or out. My eyesight is ropey at the best of times. To expect it to detect whether a small rubber ball travelling at the speed of light lands an inch inside or outside the line is pure fantasy. I had to guess and hope that my opponent would trust me if I called with sufficient authority. In truth, he probably just thought that doddery geriatric is also blind as a bat.

If I somehow got my racquet in the path of the missile, it was in danger of being ripped from my hand. If, against all odds, I managed to hold on to my racquet and connect with the ball, then it was a complete lottery as to where it would end up. In the unlikely event it landed back in court, it would inevitably only be to sit up nicely for my opponent to smash back with equal or greater ferocity.

Could this be punishment for those marbles? I resolved to steer clear of tennis racquet wielding Greeks in future. September 30, 2021


Skunk

At some point last year, I noticed my farts no longer smelt. I can’t tell you how liberating this discovery was: an odourless fart opens so many doors. It frees a man to quietly let out a little air every so often, wherever he may be and whomever he may be with. Odourless farts are the invisibility cloak of the gaseous world.

The first inkling that I may have made a terrible mistake came from the dog. On one occasion, shortly after I had released an unwanted packet of intestinal gas, she sat bolt upright, nose twitching, with a look of great concern. She then promptly vacated the room. Nothing, not even her favourite treats, could coax her back in. This incident prompted me to remember that I had lost my sense of smell a few months earlier. (Nothing to do with Covid, just yet another bodily function shutting down.) A terrifying realisation then struck me: My farts probably hadn’t lost their smell after all. It was just me that couldn’t smell them.

It occurred to me that the lack of human contact I had experienced over the past year might not, as I had previously thought, been the natural solitude of a writer’s existence during lockdown, but more to do with toxic fumes. September 21, 2021


Altitude sickness

I knew I was getting too close to the sun. I recently joined Chelsea’s Harbour Club and signed up to their tennis ladder of seventy-four players. After a handful of surprisingly comfortable wins, I rose to the giddy heights of fourth position. However, I could feel the wax on my wings beginning to loosen.

This morning my heady ascent ended with a crushing defeat. I started well enough by winning the first three games and should have stopped then. Instead, I continued and only won one more game out of the next thirteen. My opponent commented that I must be twenty years older than him. I think he was trying to say I was doing well for my age; either that or he was successfully messing with my mind. I am actually twenty-nine years older, but it felt like at least fifty when he made that observation.

I’ve dropped four places on the ladder, but with the wax now freely flowing, I fear I could be entering a similar downward spiral to the one that did for Icarus. August 29, 2021


In treatment

As a sucker for a good screen therapist – not least the sublime Dr Melfi in The Sopranos – I’m delighted that In Treatment has returned after a twelve-year hiatus. It’s had a makeover. The older white male therapist (Gabriel Byrne) has become middle-aged, black and female (Uzo Aduba). The secluded Baltimore cottage that is the treatment room has become a glitzy designer home in the Los Angeles hills. The patients are more extreme. The most significant difference, though, is the ads. I saw the previous series on ad-free HBO. This time I’m watching it on Sky Atlantic, where ad breaks have been clumsily inserted into the middle of something not designed for such interruption. Imagine being in the middle of an intense therapy session – tentatively exposing all your neuroses to scrutiny – when suddenly the door bursts open and a stream of noisy commercial characters parade loudly around the room shouting, ‘look at me, look at me’. It somewhat breaks the spell. July 20, 2021


Caffeinated

People tend to assume I’m a coffee connoisseur simply because I drink industrial quantities of the stuff. But quantity shouldn’t be mistaken for quality – I drink Gold Blend instant and cappuccinos; ergo, I’m not a connoisseur.

However, I do know my cappuccino from my latte, something that seems to be beyond the wit of most coffee places. Order a cappuccino, and nine times out of ten, you’ll end with a latte. I always ask for a dry cappuccino; to make the point I want the milk to be foamed rather than simply warm. (If I were Cresta Bear, I would say – ‘Make it frothy man’.) They take my order without question and return a wet latte. It’s as if my “dry” is silent, and despite my desire for a cappuccino, they know what I really want is a latte. It’s enough to turn you to drink. June 25, 2021


I read the news today

Oh boy.

A therapist will advise that to affect a change in a relationship; you need to change yourself rather than try to change the other party. It’s beginning to dawn on me that rather than wait for the world around me to become less crazy, it’s me who needs to change.

I need to forsake The Guardian for The Telegraph, start believing in British exceptionalism and learn to revere statues and our imperialist past. I must become less tolerant of anyone who happens to have been born elsewhere, find clever ways to avoid paying tax (because who wants to live in a more equal and just society?), trust our government and love our leader.

Then, and only then, will I be aligned with the world in which I live. The daily news will be a pleasurable affirmation of all my beliefs rather than the horror show it currently is.

‘Simples’, as Alexander Orlov would say. June 8, 2021


Honey, I’ve lost my sense of humour

“If in doubt, chuck it” is my motto. I’ll often throw away something prematurely, but I can forgive myself by accepting it’s just collateral damage, a fair price for a life free from junk. It’s slightly more problematic when I unwittingly throw one of my wife’s treasured possessions, but at least the doghouse is clutter-free.

At the beginning of this year, I set myself the target of reducing myself by 6.4%. I’ve smashed that in less than six months and am already only 92.7% of the man I was in January. However, I’m now worried that I might have inadvertently disposed of a part of me that I didn’t want to lose. I fear I might have thrown away my sense of humour. What do you think? Is this entry funny? It’s not. Like that guy in Newport who threw away his hard drive containing £210m worth of bitcoin, I know there’s no chance of getting it back. May 25, 2021


Boiling frog

It’s said that if you drop a frog in hot water, it will jump out immediately. If, however, you put it in cold water and then bring that water slowly to boil, the frog won’t notice that it’s being boiled to death. This might be apocryphal – there are plenty to say that frogs aren’t that stupid, but nonetheless, it seems to me this is what is happening to us today. Things are hotting up, glaciers are melting, and our changing climate is turning us all mad. What other possible explanation could there be for Paul Dacre being seriously considered for the Ofcom chair or Liz Cheney becoming the only reasonable Republican in the room? Either the world’s going mad, or it’s me. May 12, 2021


Disappointment

I was reminded this weekend why I left my parental home. I needed to find myself a better local football team.

With my original team Cambridge United on the verge of promotion, I was excited to find I could watch their games online for £10. I’ve witnessed one draw, two defeats and now that odds-on promotion place is somewhat more in the balance. Their two losses have been against teams in the bottom half with nothing to play for. This weekend’s opponents, Harrogate, with their eye on their FA Trophy game on Monday, made eight changes. The mighty ‘U’s were three down in 20 minutes after some comedy defending. They clawed back to 4-4 only to concede another and lose 5-4.

They still only need to get a draw from their last game to secure promotion. That game is at home to bottom-of-the-table already-relegated Grimsby Town. As anyone familiar with the slings and arrows of following a football team will know, there can only be one outcome. Sadly, the writing is already on the wall. May 1, 2021


Brittle

As I threw my tennis racquet to the ground in anger last week, a couple of thoughts crossed my mind. The first was that I hadn’t done this since I was fifteen years old. The second thought wasn’t so much a thought as an image from the film The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.  My takeout from that movie was that, as we become old and decrepit, we return to an infantile state of helplessness. My temper tantrum indicates that I’ve reached the point on the journey of life where I’m fifteen again. (This, incidentally, means I can now predict the year of my eventual demise with a reasonable degree of certainty as 2036.) The racquets I used to throw around courts were made of wood and considerably more resilient than the Babolat I now use. Like its owner, the Babolat has a certain brittleness which means it cracks when chucked on the ground. Perhaps I should replace it with a wooden one. If I’m going to lose, I might as well do so with a tool that I can blame. April 22, 2021


It doesn’t matter

I’m having a terrible Fantasy Football season. I’m currently 1,534,395 places worse off than I was last season. I’m in lowly fifth place in the company league I have topped in the previous two seasons. I’m trying to tell myself that it doesn’t matter, but it does. It matters a lot. I’ve dropped to the second division of the Wandsworth Local League tennis, having been a fixture in division one for the past few years. I’ve lost three of my six games. My opponents may be better players than me and thirty years younger, but that’s no excuse. They say it’s the taking part that counts, but that’s rubbish. I’m on a losing streak in Words With Friends. Like Donald Trump, I’m a loser. That matters. April 16, 2021


Cold

Last week I searched ‘why is it so fucking cold’. Google offered up a one minute film from the BBC that featured a cup of tea to represent the Arctic airflow. The gist of it was that the tea is being stirred slowly, which somehow causes it to reverse direction. In turn, this has had the effect of replacing mild westerly winds with cold easterlies from Siberia. That’s why it’s so fucking cold. Instead of our usual balmy spring afternoons, we’re stuck in what feels like a scene from Ice Station Zebra. April 12, 2021


Unforgotten

The current series of Unforgotten is about a cold case crime that occurred on March 30, 1990. That date sounds familiar, I thought. Eventually, it came to me. Our wedding anniversary! The cogs continued to whirr. We got married on the day of the crime. No, Jay was born a year after our wedding, and he was born in 1992. It must have been a year later. We got married on March 30, 1991. What year are we in now? 2021. Thirty years on from 1991. Fuck, it must be our thirtieth wedding anniversary next week. I must remember to tell the wife. March 28, 2021


Humble beginnings

Today, Cambridge United returned to the top of Division 2 with a last-minute winner away at Carlisle. It might seem premature to be posting this before the end of the season, but as a follower of the “U’s” for fifty years, I’ve learnt to celebrate success when it happens. Such moments are fleeting. It’s been a long journey to the top for Cambridge United’s manager, Mark Bonner. Two decades ago he started at the bottom rung as coach of United’s under-eights team. March 27, 2021


War and peace

Cleo, our three-year-old cavapoo, has one purpose in life: to rid the world, or at least her world, of cats. She guards her territory ferociously, especially after eating poodle biscuits (the canine equivalent of crack cocaine – highly addictive and producing an energy rush and edginess). High on poodle biscuits, our increasingly paranoid cavapoo has recently started barking manically at imaginary cats on an empty garden wall. Better safe than sorry.

Imagine, if you will, Cleo’s reaction when a kitten arrived in her house last November. She wanted to kill it. And if she couldn’t kill it, she wanted it out. The kitten was untroubled by his highly excitable housemate. He knew he could always outwit the dog and jump out of reach. Initially, he stayed at the top of the house where she wasn’t allowed before increasingly coming downstairs to provoke her. His favourite game was to sit just out of her reach and then punch her on the nose whenever she jumped up at him. It drove Cleo insane with rage.

This continued for two months. And, then, all of a sudden, it stopped. Cleo did a 180-degree about-turn and decided that Spout, the cat, was now her new best friend. They are now inseparable and can often be found sharing a hit of poodle biscuits. March 12, 2021


Standing tall

I need to lose 6.5% of myself. The 6.5% that grew freely during the first and second lockdowns, thriving on my daughter’s cooking and generally slothful state. Finding it a lot harder to contract than to expand, it has occurred to me that there are two ways to reduce one’s Body Mass Index. The two determinants of B.M.I. are weight and height. I’m thinking it may be easier to grow a few centimetres than to lose a couple of kilos. Forget the diet, the personal training and the runs around the common; I’m going to commit to some serious stretching instead. All that’s needed is to extend myself by two or three centimetres. March 1, 2021


Creature of habit

Every day without fail, our dog demands its dinner at 6:00 pm on the dot. How does it know it’s 6:00 pm? Similarly, I’m now waking every day at precisely 7:40 am. Not a minute before, nor a minute later. I don’t know why my internal clock has chosen this time. Ideally, I would prefer to stay asleep until 8:00 am, but it seems I don’t have a say. The routine of lockdown has fixed it, and I’ve mislaid the instructions to re-programme myself. February 28, 2021


Euphoria

Cambridge United are playing Mansfield Town today, which brings back memories of one of the most exciting days of my life. Just under forty-seven years ago, on 28th April 1973, my father took me to the Abbey Stadium for the season’s final game. The stakes were high; whoever won between Cambridge United and Mansfield Town would win promotion from the old Division Four. A draw would mean both sides would miss out, and Newport County would go up in their place. Cambridge fell behind twice, but both times pulled back to level the game. And then, with less than twenty minutes left, Ronnie Walton scored a blistering winner. Cambridge were up to the Third Division for the first time in their history. My passion for the game was cemented there and then. February 20, 2021


Packed

The other week we generated eighteen bags of trash, giving lie to my perception that we live a minimalist life. There are only three of us, so nearly one sack of rubbish each every single day. I blame the packaging industry. We recently took delivery of a box so large that we could hardly get it through our front door. At a guess, it had the capacity of a cubic meter. Deep inside were two small terracotta pots. The rest of the box was filled with tightly compressed paper. Five large bin bags of the stuff. Everything is overpacked and almost impossible to penetrate. I nearly took my finger off last week trying to open my vacuum-packed smoked cod. It’s a good job we live in a world of infinite resources. February 17, 2021


Never was so much destroyed for so many by so few

A number of small businesses are being forced to move operations to Europe in order to avoid the crippling effects of Brexit. This business owner expressed it nicely when he said,  ‘to adapt a phrase from our most famous leader – never in the field of British business has so much been destroyed for so many, by so few.’ February 15, 2021


What to do in third lockdown #2

Choose what colour socks to wear. I have fifteen different coloured pairs. Today I’ve chosen a pink pair to celebrate my wife’s birthday. Depending on how much wine I consume this evening, tomorrow might call for something less vibrant. February 11, 2021


Cushions come those that wait

Willow and Hall subscribe to the philosophy that good things come to those that wait. They made us wait 152 days for a cushion we ordered back in September. It’s a good cushion, but not that good. Willow and Hall also believe in building suspense through opaque or non-existent communication. Keep the customer on his toes by not telling him what’s going on. The one thing they don’t appear to believe in, though, is customer service. February 4, 2021


Cutlery segmentation

There are certain things in life that, on discovery, seem so obvious that it’s difficult to believe you didn’t know about them before. One such thing is the technique of separating cutlery by section in the washing machine, so that all the knives are together in one compartment, the spoons in another, etc. etc. It transforms the task of unloading the dishwasher. I regard myself as something of a master dishwasher loader, turning my nose up at those who mix their plates and mugs up or don’t rinse particularly dirty dishes before putting them in. But I never knew the technique of cutlery segmentation. I thought I had worked it out all by myself during the first lockdown and was thinking about patenting the process when my wife told me she had been using it for years. Wives can be clever like that. January 28, 2021


Facelift

I was fifteen years old when the Pompidou Centre opened in 1977. I was fascinated by the idea of an inside-out building, although, to my shame, I’ve never visited it. Now they’re going to close it down for four years because it’s showing signs of ageing and needs renovation. I too am ageing and in need of renovation, but no one’s talking about shutting me down and giving me a €100m facelift. I wonder how you lift the face of an inside-out building. January 28, 2021


Double vision

We watched a documentary about Princess Margaret last week. Near the end, my daughter said we’d already seen it a couple of years ago. I have no recollection of this, although a scene involving the Princess cavorting with Peter Sellars seemed vaguely familiar. Similarly, my wife and I are currently watching the first series of The Bay. I’m pretty sure I haven’t seen it before, other than that a key scene in the first episode has a familiar ring. Perhaps I’ve seen the whole series after all. Recently, I bought a film that I’ve wanted to watch for some time – The Wife. Ten minutes in, I remembered I had already seen it. There’s so much good new stuff (67 films, 32 documentaries, 62 TV dramas are currently on my to-watch list) that I don’t want to waste time by re-watching things I’ve already seen. If I can’t remember what I’ve seen, then the amount of stuff to watch increases exponentially. Is it a waste of time to watch something again if I can’t remember having already seen it? How will I ever get through my list of new stuff if I get stuck on an infinite loop watching the same old thing repeatedly? Does it matter?  January 14, 2021


What to do in third lockdown

Contemplate whether there is further room for improvement in the re-organised cutlery drawer, with adjustable dividers, that was the main achievement of first lockdown. January 7, 2021


Georgia on my mind

January 6, 2021


Lockdown

January 5, 2021


Little Englander

Malheureusement, Je ne suis plus un Européen. As of today, I am a Little Englander. Not the global citizen I like to think of myself as, but part of an island nation that, like it or not, is best personified by Nigel Farage. C’est dommage. January 1, 2021


Best coffee in the world

This morning I had the best coffee in the world. It was the product of an automatic coffee dispenser in the Wandsworth BUPA centre. Truth is it wasn’t top quality, but as I hadn’t been allowed to have any caffeine before my medical, it was my first coffee of the day and tasted wonderful for it. I really needed something stronger. A double whisky might have done the trick. I had just learnt the folly of scheduling my annual BUPA medical in the week after Christmas in a lockdown year. If not quite twice the man I was a year ago, there is certainly more of me and consequently my metrics have gone the wrong way. December 30, 2020


Know thyself

Being stuck at home for most of the year has allowed me to get to know myself better. With the help of Google, I’ve self-diagnosed myself as having misophonia, partial anomosia, presbyopia, tinnitus and cabin fever. Thankfully though, not hypochondria. My wife offered a further diagnosis – grumpiness – but neither is that a medical condition nor is she a physician and so we can safely discount it. December 19, 2020


The cost of replacing a light bulb

How much does it cost to replace a light bulb? The answer according to Britannia is £305 + labour. Their website says ‘we believe in a design you can see’. So they believe in illumination. But not so much as to stock replacement light units for some of their older models. If you have the misfortune to own an older Britannia cooker, the only way to fix a faulty light is to replace the whole extractor hood. Talk about using a hammer to crack a nut. Their website goes on to say they believe in craftsmanship you can feel. That is undoubtedly true. Those familiar with a Britannia cooker will know that the metallic temperature knobs are positioned directly above the oven. Touch these when the Sunday roast is on, and you’ll certainly feel it, although for a short while thereafter you’ll have no feeling whatsoever in your fingertips. How long does it take Britannia to respond to a customer who wants to repair or replace a broken cooker light? Eight months. The website says ‘we believe in reliability you can count on’. I wonder what they mean by that. November 20, 2020


I must be dead

All my then five-year-old daughter knew about allergies was that they meant she couldn’t have the cat that she really wanted. Her father was allergic to them. Reluctantly she accepted this state of affairs, but not without a perfectly reasonable request, ’Mummy, when Daddy dies can we get a cat?’ Eighteen years later, she has given up waiting and this week a shorthaired silver tabby kitten called Sprout has joined our household. November 5, 2020


Mad Women

The excellent TV series Mrs America has been described as a companion piece for Mad Men on account of their similar style and evocation of 1960s America. I momentarily thought that Mad Women might have been a better title, but quickly dismissed it as a bad idea. It’s not so much that Mrs America had nothing to do with Madison Avenue, but that mad has a different meaning when applied to women than it does for men. Other than when referring to the insane, there can be a roguish element to a mad man, but to call a woman mad is always derogatory. It’s enough to make you mad. October 9, 2020


Green Fingers Gravatt

Stranded in London because of Covid, with my wife in New York, and feeling a degree of responsibility for the garden that she has carefully cultivated over the years, I decided I needed to buy some plants to fill our empty vegetable patch. (I might mow the lawn, but there’s no way I’m going to go all Good Life and become self-sufficient by growing my own vegetables when Sainsbury’s sell them.) My wife suggested geraniums might do the trick. I measured the space and, with the help of Google, worked out that 8 plants would be sufficient. So far so good. Then it went wrong. I’m not quite sure how, but I ended up buying 366 geranium plants and now our garden is carpeted with them. August 2020


The Funny Side of Life
back
The Funny Side of Life

Daniel Craig and me

Simon 2.0: The upgrade

Plonker

Cycle lane

Twice the man

Identity crisis

How much?

Lesson learnt

A pickle


What do Daniel Craig, Tom Hiddleston and Simon Gravatt have in common?

I imagine you’re thinking physique. You probably pictured that scene of Daniel Craig as James Bond emerging from the sea in his blue swimming costume. But while physique is a good answer, it’s not what I have in mind. What we have in common is that all three of us wear the same brand of sock.

The guys at The London Sock Company are experts in the male foot; there’s nothing they don’t know about how to comfortably and stylishly dress it. They also have a cool logo that features a penny farthing (quite what that has to do with socks I’m not sure, but it looks good) and they come in a range of colours, of which pink is my favourite (enabling my feminine side to peep out from under my trousers).

Three years ago my wife gave me gave me a box of 15 various coloured pairs of London Sock Company socks, each with its own compartment. What more could a man with OCD tendencies want? It was my favourite present.

Last year Ros gave me another London Sock Company present: 3 pairs of boxer shorts. A sock company branching out into boxer shorts? Could experts in the male foot really also know the male penis? The first thing I noticed was that they were targeting a different demographic. Whereas their socks are made for sophisticated men about town like Daniel Craig and, dare I say it, myself, they clearly had a younger customer in mind for their boxer shorts. Designed for well-hung 25 year olds, they look ridiculous on a saggy, shrivelled sixty-one year body. Or rather, I look ridiculous in them. But this is why my wife is such a genius. I have learnt not to question her judgment: She is always right. I found myself thinking that if she believes I look good in them, then I must have retained more of my Adonis-like body than I had thought. I began to think more like a 25 year-old and less like the grumpy old man that I had thought was my duty to live up to. Rather than scold me for being a miserable sod, my wife had successfully reprogrammed me to be a more positive person simply by buying me some boxer shorts. 

December 2023

There's one other person who's responsible for my new-found happiness: Dr Robert Iorga, one of the top neurosurgeons at St George’s Hospital, or, for that matter, in the world. I first began to realise I had a problem when watching England play China in the Women’s World Cup. Not only could I not see the ball, but I couldn’t see any of the Chinese team as their red strip merged with the green grass. All I could see was the English team in their white kit. It made for a bizarre viewing experience.

My eyesight deteriorated over the summer to about 30% normal vision. The problem was identified as a large tumour in my head that had been there for years, growing slowly until it had reached my optic nerves. On October 18th Dr Iorga cut open my head and then spent to next 7 hours meticulously removing the tumour. 

Onl once it had gone did I realise how it had affected me, certainly for all of this year and probably a year or two before that. Previously I was apathetic and completely lacking in motivation. I’ve done nothing this year; these are the first words I written.  Simon 2.0. the tumourless version, is literally a new man, energised and positive. My eyesight will still take weeks, if not months, to recover and so I'll continue to struggle with certain aspects of life. Last week I thought it strange that there were no urinals in the cinema toilet. I wondered if I had gone into the Ladies by mistake. I went out to double-check the sign on the door. As far as I could tell, it looked like a gents sign so I went back in. Someone else came in. She was at the sinks when I came out the loo. I thought I was going to get arrested!

But once these minor technical issues are ironed out, I'm confident that Simon 2.0 will prove to be a substantial improvement on the original.

December 2023

Turning sixty felt like as good time as any to cast an eye back over my life; to review my successes and failures (sorry, learning experiences), my triumphs and defeats and take stock of where I am and how I got here. Such reflection quickly led to one stark and unavoidable conclusion: namely, that I am, and always have been, a bit of a plonker.

Such a revelation will come as no surprise to you, of course. What might shock you, though, is that, until now, I didn't realise it. "What? He didn't know he was a plonker? What a plonker."

My saving grace, I think, has been my semi-posh accent. It means that people tend to think I'm clever, when, in fact, I'm not. Whenever my intelligence has been put to the test I've been shown to be as thick as a brick.

People also assume, because I speak proper, that I'm being ironic and self-deprecating. When I tell them, truthfully, that I'm intellectually challenged, for example, they laugh and think "how droll, what a clever chap". It's ingrained in our national psyche to assume someone with a public school voice means the opposite of what he or she is saying.

Even my wife, an undeniably intelligent woman, fell for my accent and decided it signified good enough stock to breed from.  This was a huge stroke of luck for me as I've been able to ride on the coat-tails of her success. 

You might ask why don't I change. Sadly, like a leopard and his spots, I fear I'm stuck with my plonks. But you never know, self-awareness can be the first step and maybe, one day, I'll surprise you all.

September 2022

As a cyclist delighted with the recent improvement to cycling infrastructure in London, I don't want to be churlish, but I have a few problems with this particular cycle lane. The non-cyclists among you may think it looks like an excellent cycle lane, but let me tell you, it's not.

Firstly, it's hidden away in a pedestrian area. You'd have to know it was there and then walk to it with your bike if you wanted to use it.

Secondly, it's not very long. You would need to dismount no sooner had you started on it. Walking with your bike on such a short stretch would be quicker.

Thirdly, there's a fucking lamp-post in the middle. If a road builder encountered a pylon in their way, they would go around it. They wouldn't build a road with a pylon stuck in the middle.

What has clearly happened here is that Wandsworth Council has been told to provide a cycle lane. And they have. That it's useless and not fit for purpose is neither here nor there.

They'll do it again if you don't stamp on things like this immediately.

Here's another bicycle lane in Wandsworth.

It's beginning to look like someone in County Hall (someone with a vendetta against cyclists) is taking the piss. 

July 2022

Turning sixty felt like as good time as any to cast an eye back over my life; to review my successes and failures (sorry, learning experiences), my triumphs and defeats and take stock of where I am and how I got here. Such reflection quickly led to one stark and unavoidable conclusion: namely, that I am, and always have been, a bit of a plonker.

Such a revelation will come as no surprise to you, of course. What might shock you, though, is that, until now, I didn't realise it. "What? He didn't know he was a plonker? What a plonker."

My saving grace, I think, has been my semi-posh accent. It means that people tend to think I'm clever, when, in fact, I'm not. Whenever my intelligence has been put to the test I've been shown to be as thick as two short bricks.

People also assume, because I speak proper, that I'm being ironic and self-deprecating. When I tell them, truthfully, that I'm intellectually challenged, for example, they laugh and think "how droll, what a clever chap". It's ingrained in our national psyche to assume someone with a public school voice means the opposite of what he or she is saying.

Even my wife, an undeniably intelligent woman, fell for my accent and decided it signified good enough stock to breed from.  This was a huge stroke of luck for me as I've been able to ride on the coat-tails of her success. 

You might ask why don't I change. Sadly, like a leopard and his spots, I fear I'm stuck with my plonks. But you never know, self-awareness can be the first step and maybe, one day, I'll surprise you all.

June 2022

'I’m a novelist. I’m a novelist. I’m a novelist.' I’m writing fifty lines of this each morning in an attempt to train myself to be able to answer the question “what do you do?” It doesn’t come naturally. I tend to get tongue-tied and struggle to respond. Sometimes I manage to say I’m a business owner and a writer, but that’s not how I want to position myself. I want to shed my old skin and present myself anew to the world.

Anyway, to say I’m a writer is like saying I’m an eater or a breather. Everyone writes. The truthful answer is that I doodle and slouch. I doodle in the morning and slouch in the afternoon. Maybe that’s my response – I’m a doodler and a sloucher. I’ve just looked up doodler, only to find the urban dictionary defines a doodler as someone who has an acute desire to draw penises. Scratch that: I am not a doodler. I do not – I want to be absolutely clear on this – have an acute desire to draw penises. I’m a novelist. I’m a novelist. I’m a novelist.

A reason I struggle with claiming the new identity I desire is that I don’t believe I deserve it. I've had one novel published, but that might be nothing more a flash in the pan. I wouldn’t describe myself as a footballer on the strength of kicking a ball in the park. I would only claim to be a footballer if I was paid to kick a ball. Having become familiar with the economics of writing I now realise I'm as likely to make money from my novels as I am from professional football. Perhaps this means I’m a hobbyist whose hobby happens to be writing? I don’t want to be a hobbyist. I want to be a novelist. 

April 2022

‘How much is it worth?’

‘It’s invaluable.’

The Post Office clerk frowned. ‘What’s its price?’

‘It’s priceless.’

The clerk looked unconvinced. He lifted the brown package from the scale. ‘What is it?’

‘A work of art.’

The clerk turned the package in his hands. ‘It feels like a book to me.’ 

‘It’s a masterpiece.’

‘Really?’ Conscious of the lengthening queue of increasingly impatient customers, the clerk tried a different line of questioning, ‘how much did it cost you?’

‘Three year’s hard endeavour, a lifetime of thwarted dreams, countless false starts and numerous rejections.’

‘Look Sir, I need a value for insurance purposes. The cost of the insurance is proportionate to the value of the item. If you want me to record it as invaluable, then it will cost you hundreds, if not thousands, of pounds to send.’

‘Ah, okay. £8.99.’

‘Thank you, Sir. If you don’t mind saying, that sounds like a bargain. For a work of art.’

‘I couldn’t have put it better myself.’

February 2022

I had a good learning experience last week. Good as in the learning, not the experience; the  experience was traumatic.

I learnt it’s inadvisable to go out on a bike in a major storm. I was travelling at some speed when a gust of wind blew me off the road. For a fleeting moment I was like Chitty Chitty Bang Bang before being smashed into a concrete bollard. If an Act of God, it was a pretty vengeful one.

I was battered and bruised; the bike even more so (£200+ repairs). To look on the bright side, the way I was lifted like a feather suggests my weight loss programme might be working.

February 2022

I like to write self-deprecating essays based on personal experience. My wife, however, doesn't want to feature in these pieces.

 'You shouldn't have married a writer,' I say. 

'I didn't,' she replies, 'I married a lowly advertising executive.'

'Well, you're married to one now.' I puff my chest out.

My wife raises a sceptical eyebrow. Despite all my endeavours, my wife still thinks of me as the guy who puts out the rubbish on Wednesday mornings.

Those of you acquainted with my wife will know that it would be a brave man who goes against her wishes. But to acquiesce would hobble my creativity. To write her out of my life would be to present myself as a saddo recluse. She's often the only person I interact with for days. I would have nothing to write about other than the dog, the cat and my inner thoughts. (And you wouldn't want to be subjected to those.)

The solution, possibly, is for me to invent a fictional wife. But I could run into trouble with this too. Imagine, for example, if I wrote that my wife has taken on work as an actress in blue movies to help pay for our energy bills. My real wife would go ballistic and tell me I couldn't possibly write such a thing. I'll explain that I'm writing about my fictional wife, not my real wife. 'No one will know that,' she will say in the kind of tone that leaves no doubt that I am about to spend the evening on the naughty step. 'They'll think I've become a porn star.' 

'They won't.'

'What are you saying? That I couldn't be a porn star?' Whether or not my wife could make it as a porn star is a conversation to be avoided. It could only end badly.

So, as you can see, there's no good option. If I go against my wife and write about her, there'll be hell to pay. If I invent a fictional wife, there'll also be hell to pay. If I don't mention her, I'll have nothing to write about. (And there'll probably still be hell to pay for presenting myself as unmarried and available.)

Quite a pickle.

November 2021