It’s not all about me

A couple of my readers have commented that my emails tend to be a little self-obsessed. Fair cop. I used to write about an Englishman’s observations of America, followed by the musings of a middle-aged man on a bicycle and then I promoted my novel. Now I don’t have a theme, other than a mission to make people laugh. My style of humour is self-deprecation. The clue is ‘self’! My last communique (Could do, can’t do) was the most ‘me, me, me’ one yet. It also happens to have generated more positive feedback than any of my other mailers. So there you have it, research proves that people want to read about me!

But to demonstrate that I listen to my readers, this one’s not about me. Instead it offers a rose-tinted view of our fucked-up world.

A recent, beautiful Japanese film, Perfect Days, stars a guy who cleans public toilets in Tokyo; someone who lives in abject poverty at the bottom of the food chain. And yet he savours the simple pleasures in his life. Blues skies and birdsong herald a joyous start to each new day. Heartwarming stuff. Hats off to him. As it happens, I’ve worn his shoes as I was once a toilet cleaner. I have to say, though, I failed to approach my work with quite the same joie de vivre. I guess it’s simply a matter of perspective.

Take the US election for one. It’s easy to get profoundly depressed about what’s happening, and could happen, over there. But look at it as a work of fiction and there’s a compelling story. The villain of the piece is a narcissist with the emotional maturity of a 10 year old, who has a tendency to grab women inappropriately and who pays hush money to porn stars. A classic baddie, he poses an existential threat to democracy. The only man who can save the world is an unlikely hero; an old guy who gets easily confused and sometimes falls over. And then another character enters the fray. Part of America’s political dynasty, he, notably, has a dead worm in his brain. Pure gold and we get a ringside seat.

As another Kennedy (the father of the guy with a dead worm in his head) put it in 1966, “there’s a Chinese curse which says ‘May he live in interesting times.’ Like it or not we live in interesting times. They are times of danger and uncertainty; but they’re also more open to the creative energy of men than any other time in history.”

Someone who made the worst of times his own personal best of times was the playwright Denis Potter. When dying with a terminal illness, he said, “…at this season, the blossom is out in full now. It’s a plum tree, it looks like apple blossom but it’s white, and looking at it, instead of saying “Oh that’s nice blossom” … last week looking at it through the window when I’m writing, I see it is the whitest, frothiest, blossomest blossom that there ever could be, and I can see it. Things are both more trivial than they ever were, and more important than they ever were, and the difference between the trivial and the important doesn’t seem to matter. But the nowness of everything is absolutely wondrous, and if people could see that, you know. There’s no way of telling you; you have to experience it, but the glory of it, if you like, the comfort of it, the reassurance … not that I’m interested in reassuring people – bugger that. The fact is, if you see the present tense, boy do you see it! And boy can you celebrate it.”

There’s a chance my eyesight won’t recover sufficiently to able to drive again. ‘Bother’ said Pooh. But as Eeyore or Piglet might point out, what an opportunity to take the high ground and become an eco warrior. I’ll get myself an electric bike and berate all my gas-guzzling friends for destroying the environment. I’ve recently started cycling again, both in London and the Cotswolds, and have been overwhelmed by the joy of being back in the saddle. The silence of a well-oiled machine, the beauty of Spring, the rhythm of making my own way through country lanes or quiet city backstreets. It’s truly life-affirming.

Oops, I’m writing about myself again!

Things I could do

Dance like John Travolta. (They didn’t call me Simon Gravolta for nothing.)

Polish off half a bottle of Lagavulin into the early hours with my buddy Andrew. And then go to work the next morning.

Touch my toes.

Smoke gold tipped black Sobranie cigarettes. Sometimes a pink one.

Vote Conservative. (I didn’t know better.)

Drink five pints of beer and drive home afterwards.

Win a game of tennis with a wooden racquet.

Purchase a lifetime of mood-altering experience for £1.99 at Andy’s Records in Market Square, Cambridge: Dark Side of the Moon on vinyl.

Get from A to B without sat nav.

Eat 36 Weetabix in a single sitting.

Queue overnight on Kings Parade, Cambridge in late December to get into the Kings College Carol Service. (And then fall asleep during the service.)

Queue overnight outside Our Price records, Cambridge to get Led Zeppelin Knebworth tickets. (Completely unnecessarily as it transpired as my girlfriend popped into a shop the next week and bought some more without having to queue.)

Discover a chocolate nut spread in Italy that was not then available in the UK. (Nutella. Italy instantly became my favourite country in the world.)

Travel at 59.6mph down an Alpine mountain on two planks of laminated wood.

Drink Baileys by the pint.

Create a 5-a-side football team than would go on to win the Cambridgeshire Under-16 tournament. (Unachievable now, not because I couldn’t win it – I’m sure I could – but because I’m ineligible to enter unless I self-identify as a 15 year old.)

Leave home without an electronic device.

Smell blood during a game of Monopoly. Indeed, smell anything.

Enjoy my last ever day at school and hear my housemaster’s fond farewell to me – ‘fuck off will you, just fuck off.’

Attract a flirtatious glance across a bar from a twenty something girl.

Create a smoking den in the loft of our boarding house at school with my good friend Trevor. (Not achievable now because I don’t smoke and Trevor, RIP, is no longer with us.)

Enjoy the intense pleasure of first time experiences. Most notably my first ever chocolate hob nob.

Feel my shoulder-length hair blowing in the wind.

Whatever the hell I want

Less of a man

Over the past year I’ve lost 20% of me, 12% in the last three months. I’m substantially less of a man than I was.

As I’m quite tall, people tend to think of me as relatively slim. I hide my weight well. I’m embarrassed to admit that this time last year I weighed 99 kg, which is one of the main reasons why I slipped into diabetes. Today I weigh 77 kg.

The question that’s troubling me is where has it gone ? Where’s the missing part of me? Little bits of me have been lost: my tumour, a wisdom tooth (extracted), my wedding ring (more of that later) and my diabetes. But, together, they don’t amount to 22 kg. So what else is missing and where has it gone?

I’ve lost my youthfulness, but that’s been happening over quite a few years and so doesn’t explain the sudden loss over the last 12 months. Unless, maybe, I tipped into old age overnight.

My toothache went with my wisdom tooth, but that was just a bit of sensitivity rather than anything too heavy.

I’ve lost my sense of smell. My consultant told me this is the tumour’s fault. (Presumably my sense of smell took one look at the tumour and decided to get the hell out of my head, never to return.)

(As an aside, Ros and I went to a wine tasting course last year. They gave us a glass of Rosé and a glass of white wine. First, they asked us to look at the difference in colour. My colour blindness meant they looked identical. Then they asked us to nose them. I couldn’t smell a thing. Then they asked us to sip them. Could I detect the notes of strawberry and citrus? Not a chance.)

Being in remission from diabetes is a weight off my mind, as is the removal of my tumour, and I’m certainly feeling the lightness of being (which isn’t at all unbearable). Could that be what I’ve lost? The unbearable heaviness of being. I think that could be it. This could well be the missing 20%.

The lost wedding ring is a consequence rather than a cause of my diminution. My fingers have become thinner and my wedding ring had become looser. I was about to get it resized, but then one day, it wasn’t there. It was our wedding anniversary recently. I’d worn my wedding ring for 33 years and then one day it just dropped off.

What am I supposed to read into that? That I’m no longer the man my wife married

Locked out

‘Failed. You have one more attempt.’ And then what? I started to panic. The barman glanced at me. Does he think I’ve stolen this card? I felt guilty, even though I had nothing to feel guilty about, other than a general inability to master the simplest of tasks in modern life. Had I misremembered my PIN or had I mistyped it? Who knows? I certainly didn’t. There was now a queue of increasingly impatient people behind me at the bar. They wanted their drinks and weren’t in the slightest bit forgiving of the forgetful old man who was holding them up. Do I try again and risk my card being eaten up by the machine? I lost my nerve and called to my wife to bail out her inept husband. She’s done it before.

There’s a chilling new documentary, Phantom Parrot, about a man who refused to share his PIN with the anti-terrorist police at Heathrow. He was arrested and convicted of terrorism, even though everyone knew he wasn’t a terrorist. His only crime was to refuse to share his PIN and now he’s categorised as a terrorist for the rest of his life. God knows what would happen to me if they asked for my PIN and I couldn’t remember it.

It’s the burden of our generation to find ourselves in a blizzard of passwords just when our memories are beginning to fade. I’ve got 299 log-ins, passwords, account numbers and memorable addresses to remember. 299! When did life get so complicated? Undoubtedly, some relate to apps I no longer need. Eva’s Pups at Play in Pennsylvania, for example. What on earth possessed me to sign up for Eva’s Pups at Play in Pennsylvania? Let alone create a password for it.

Each password is supposed to be unique, to have capital and lower case letters, special characters and mustn’t be a word that I might have a cat in hell’s chance of remembering. 299 different passwords! The human brain is only capable of recalling a sequence of 7 or so randomly ordered items or chunks (which could be letters, digits, or words) and that’s a normal brain rather than a befuddled one like mine. The head of CAGE says that his laptop password contains 40 characters and that his colleagues sometimes laugh if he takes two or three goes before he remembers them all. If I had a password that long I could kiss goodbye to ever getting into my laptop.

One day passwords will be a quaint thing of the past. Everything will be face, voice or fingerprint recognition. But this, too, can be problematic. When I came out of hospital with two black eyes and a big scar across the top of my head my iPhone took one look at me and said ‘I don’t know who you are.’ Assuming it was in criminal hands, it shut down and flatly refused to cooperate.

I had been excluded from my own digital world.

Toad Patroller

‘Hello’, a man with the dog said breezily as we passed each other on the narrow country lane. I fixed my eyes on him. Did I know him? I don’t think so. Why’s he talking to me? Having lived in London, I knew that strangers who talk to you are either mad or dangerous. Sometimes both. My heart started beating – is he going to attack me? I glanced around for a suitable weapon. Nothing. I felt in my pockets. All I had was my AirPods. I’ll fend him off by throwing them at him, one by one. Maybe avoidance would be better. I crossed the road and walked speedily away from my would-be assailant.

I recently watched a documentary on our new near neighbours, the Beckhams, to help me understand country folk. It seems that building a 5-a-side football stadium in your grounds is the thing to do. Ros vetoed the idea.

I’m worried about Ros. Whereas I’m a country lad at heart, she’s unashamedly urban. Will she be a fish out of water without her tube trains, her restaurants and her museums?

She repeatedly, and uncomprehendingly, asks me what I will do when we live in the country. There’s an obvious answer to this question. Watch TV. But, instead, I say ‘go on brisk walks and breathe in fresh air’.

We went to stay at my cousin’s the other weekend to help prepare for our imminent conversion. He has a large house in a rural village. We had roast pig for dinner and walked through waterlogged meadows in the afternoon. Hearing the squelch of my sodden designer trainers, my cousin recommended I get a particular brand of walking shoe. These have become my first item of country wear. I’m transported to the countryside as I stride down our London street in them; I can almost hear the sweet sound of birdsong over the police sirens and smell the acrid stench of manure over the exhaust fumes.

You have to pay attention to different things in the country. While our local WhatsApp chat in London recently warned of a man with a machete in our street, an equivalent post on the Duns Tew chat read ‘Frogs in the road in Hill Farm Lane… please don’t run them over’. The post went on to include a link about Toads on Roads, a project that recruits toad patrollers to help them cross the road. Apparently, toads are very particular about where they breed and follow the same migratory route every year, even when it involves crossing a road.

This could be my next career move – adman, entrepreneur, novelist, toad patroller.

Toad Patroller of the Week

Last month’s story about toad patrollers produced quite a response. One friend told me how she had been driving to a wedding when she encountered a long traffic jam. They got out of their car and found the cause to be toad patrollers at work. She and her daughter, dressed for a wedding, ended up helping some toads cross the road. Another friend proudly told me how he had been voted Toad Patroller of the Week in Ham and Twickenham for saving three toads.

Red Light

Red light

The light was clearly red. I waited for my wife to slow down, but she did the opposite and accelerated towards the lights. What on earth is she doing? Roadworks had reduced two lanes to one. I clenched my fist. Every muscle in my body tensed, but I didn’t say a word. Rather suffer a head-on collision than pass comment on my wife’s driving. I closed my eyes as we passed the lights, travelling at some speed.

They say your life flashes in front of you, but for me it was just a men at work sign. They also say that everything happens in slow motion in your final moments, but there was nothing slow in the motion of the car I was in.

Seconds later it was all over. 

We were still moving, there had been no collision. We were back on the open road. I was alive.

Just as I was about to mouth a silent prayer of thanks to a God I don’t believe in, it happened again. This time it was much more serious; a large junction with big trucks travelling at speed on the cross road. I thought I was going to have a heart attack as we passed through the intersection. It was a miracle that we got through without being mown down by an articulated lorry.

Eventually, Ros stopped at a red light. Hallelujah. A wave of relief washed over me as we sat and waited for it to change. When it did something weird happened. It went from red to red to red. 

I’m part of that exclusive band of men who are red/green colour blind. The 8%. They put filters behind traffic lights just for us, so we can distinguish red from green. My first thought on seeing a sequence of three red lights was that someone was messing with colour blind men by removing the filters from traffic lights. But there are 33,000 traffic lights in the UK and so it would be quite some job to remove the filters from all of them.

A more plausible explanation began to dawn on me. Brain surgery must have changed my world to one where nothing is quite what it seems and where green is red. My wife hadn’t started driving like a lunatic after all.

But even though I now know this to be true, I still can’t stop myself flinching every time she speeds through a red light. 

Daniel Craig and me

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

Simon 2.0: The upgrade

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