Death in Appledore

I commented to a friend that I could always spot him from a distance because he had a distinctive way of walking. He suggested I write a short piece to describe it. This is my response. Two pieces of context: 1. My friend moved to Appledore in Devon a year or so ago. 2. We went to Appledore Book Festival with him last year and he really took against Gavin Esler, who talked about his new book.

The policeman looked up at his colleague and shook his head. ‘Nothing’, he said. ‘No pulse.’

His colleague, a WPC, put her hand to her mouth. She’d never seen a dead body before. They didn’t tend to get them in Appledore, at least not ones that had come about through unnatural courses. Plenty of people died of old age and there was the occasional accidental death at sea, but murder – that never happened here. Or at least it hadn’t until now.

It clearly was murder. She knew from her training that she shouldn’t jump to conclusions, but the pool of blood indicated that the life of the middle-aged man lying prostrate on the conservatory floor had been brought to a premature end. The long pole near the body looked as if it might be the weapon.

‘Lead piping’, explained the policeman. ‘The poor sod’s been struck on the back of the head with a piece of lead piping’.

There was a muffled scream from behind them. In their preoccupation with the corpse they had forgotten the lady of the house, who had raised the alarm. ‘He’s not been murdered has he?’

The policeman nodded, ‘I’m afraid it looks as if he might have been.’

‘But that’ll be terrible for business,’ the lady sobbed. ‘I thought having a celebrity stay would help put me on the map, but not after what he’s gone and done’

A bit harsh, he hardly hit himself over the head, thought the WPC, she’s obviously in shock.

‘Celebrity, you say?’ The policeman perked up. His colleague noticed the briefest of smiles cross his face. He tried to hide it, but she knew what he was thinking. It would put the Appledore Crime Prevention team on the map. Not that they’d prevented any crime. Appledore would hit the national news as the murder capital of Devon, a place where it was not safe to walk the streets at night. He would be interviewed on South West TV. ‘Who is he? Sorry, was.’

‘Gavin Esler. The BBC presenter. Lovely man. He was giving a talk at the book festival.’

She was interrupted by the WPC excitedly announcing, ‘I’ve got it. I know who did it.’

Her colleague looked at her sceptically.

‘It’s the colonel.’

‘What the guy with free-range chickens? The man from Kentucky?’

‘Yes, him. He did it.’ She replied, forgetting that she shouldn’t jump to conclusions. ‘I’m sure of it.’

The policeman shook his head slowly. ‘He wouldn’t hurt a fly, let alone a chicken. The man’s not capable of murder. What makes you think he did it?’

‘It seems obvious now, but lead piping in the conservatory… we don’t have a Reverend Green or a Professor Plum in the village. It has to be the colonel.’

The policeman looked at his colleague with a mix of incomprehension and pity. ‘This isn’t a game, you know. And anyway, isn’t it Colonel Mustard. Our colonel is Saunders.’

The assistant realised that maybe she hadn’t solved the case after all. Trying to recover, she dug further into her hole. ’What about Miss Scarlet? They all say that Betsy’s a scarlet woman.’

‘WPC Marple. Stop it.’ The policeman’s rebuke sounded sterner than he had intended.

‘I’m sorry, sir, but we don’t have a Mrs White.’ As she said this, she stopped suddenly, hit by another insight. Her boss had the same thought. Both of them turned slowly to look at the lady of the house. A certain Mrs White.

‘Mrs White. Where were you between the hours of five and seven?’

Mrs White looked incredulous. ‘You don’t seriously think I did this?’

The policeman did indeed think was implausible, but he knew from his Agatha Christies that the murderer was often the last person anyone suspected. ‘The evidence suggests you might well have done it. You were at the scene of the crime.’

‘I was not. I was in the kitchen preparing dinner.’

‘Have you any witnesses that could corroborate that?’

‘My cat.’

‘And you’re called Mrs White.’ The WPC added. Rather unhelpfully, the policeman thought.

‘This is ridiculous,’ said Mrs White. ‘I’ve got a pretty good idea who did it.’


‘The man on the hill. I saw him through the kitchen window, lurking in the street. He looked highly suspicious.’

‘The man on the hill?’

‘Yes, you know. The Londoner. He’s been here for about a year. They say he’s writing an epic novel. I often see him in the evening standing in that big window of his, surveying the village like a feudal lord.’

‘I know who you mean,’ said WPC Marple, ‘he sometimes has a little terrier with him. A good looking man.’ Realising this disclosure might have been a little unprofessional, she added, ‘but too old for me.’ The policeman wondered if she believed that, such was her tone. It sounded to him as if she had a bit of a crush on the man from the hill.

Mrs White continued, ‘there’s something distinctive about the way he walks. Very upright.’

‘Yes,’ WPC Marple added, ‘and from behind his broad shoulders and narrow waist form a perfect triangle.’

‘It’s more his straight back I was thinking of.’

‘Why?’ The policeman was curious.

‘Well, he could easily conceal a long object against his back. He could walk down the street with it there and no-one would think anything of it because he always walks like that.’

‘The lead piping.’

‘Yes,’ Mrs White continued ‘and there’s something else.’

‘What’s that?’

‘He was at Mr Esler’s talk at the book festival. I couldn’t help noticing that he seemed very agitated. He was harrumphing away and saying it was all nonsense.’

‘What was nonsense?’

‘He seemed to think that Mr Esler’s talk was nonsense. It wasn’t though, I thought it was rather good.’ Mrs White turned to the corpse. ‘Poor man.’

‘Is that enough to kill him?’ The policeman looked sceptical.

‘I don’t know. All I know is that he seemed angry with Mr Esler, he was loitering suspiciously around here at the time of the murder and he walks in a way that could conceal the murder weapon.’

That was enough to persuade the policeman that the man on a hill was, at the very least, a suspect. It gave him the chance to speed through the streets of Appledore with siren blaring and lights flashing, imagining they were Starsky and Hutch. WPC Marple thought it was a bit over the top, but thrilling all the same.

‘You’ve missed him,’ a pedestrian on the pavement outside the house on the hill said. ‘He saw you coming and scarpered.’

‘Was he running in a very upright way?’

’No, but he ran like no-one I’ve ever seen. Extremely fast, I doubt you’ll ever catch him. Looked like he had a rocket up his arse.’

Becoming a writer

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 were certain benefits to be had from a writer’s life: Wealth, beautiful house, attractive wife, and – most importantly – time to watch football.


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 “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. 


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.



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

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?’


‘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

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.




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.’


‘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?’


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?