297. Fear and loathing in North Essex

During one of the last days of 2020, with daylight in short supply, Maureen and I drove about 15 miles out to Coggeshall, a small town in north Essex where some friends had lived a couple of decades back. Still allowed to exercise by walking, we went primarily to beat back the coronavirus ennui and sense of isolation.

Coggeshall is a beautiful town, with hundreds of listed buildings that are delicious on the eye.

With few people out on the streets, the architecture dominates. Alleyways, shops, houses and pubs with facades and features that take you back in time. Ghosts lodged in the freezing air. It made me sad to never have lived in a visibly historic town. But that’s another story.

In this one, I realised at some stage that nature was calling. Left my wife browsing shop windows and followed a sign indicating that relief lay ahead. No surprise, though, that the public conveniences were closed. I saw two elderly couples chatting, and assumed they were locals. Walked across the road and spoke to the nearest woman. “Excuse me, do you know of any nearby public toilet that is open.”

I started my question about two metres away from her, as recommended. I have been shielding my father for almost a year. Hence I stay distant from anyone except family. Nonetheless, with each word she shuffled backwards. When I got to “here” she had at least doubled the distance between us.

The fear in her eyes, above her mask, was palpable. I don’t wear a mask in the open air. Maybe that scared her, which would never be my intention.

The poor woman knew of no other public facilities. Thanking her, I set off for a small park I had seen earlier. Hoping to discover a large bush that might shroud my debladdering.

No good. Bush-free. Coming back, a woman (also masked, maybe in her late 60s) appeared at the other end of a path that skirted a small grassy area. It’s best to be kind whenever you can. I decided to walk out onto the sodden grass before we passed so that she would not have to come close.

I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry at what happened next. Well before our passing point, she stopped, turned, and bent over the waist-high fence bordering the path. So that her bum poked up and her head was as far away from me as possible. So as not to inhale any of my breath.

I found out later that Coggeshall was hit by the Black Death back in the 14th century. Maybe those ghosts were urging her to avoid me like the plague.

“Thank you”! I said. To her buttocks.

The only suitable place I could find was a path alongside a Presbyterian church, away from public gaze. Gratefully emptying my bladder, I thought about the coronavirus for the thousandth time.

Being alive comes with risks. Always has done. One option that I choose is to take Vitamins C and D3, combined with zinc, to strengthen immunity to respiratory illness. Walk long distances. Eat well. Avoid close contact with strangers. Simple common sense.

If SARS-Cov 2 does somehow come knocking, then such is life, or perhaps death. The Grim Reaper comes for us all in the end. But when he swings a cleaver stained with Covid, his victims have already lived one year longer on average than those who expire from other causes. Encouragingly, there is something like a 99.7% survival chance, for those contracting the virus. In a life that comes with no guarantees, those are good odds. Happy odds. And so I worry about passing the virus to Dad far, far more than for my own wellbeing.

The image of the protruding arse will stay with me. To repeat a past opinion, the widespread depression and other forms of mental illness stemming from the government’s Covid-19 lockdown policy are affecting so many more people than the virus itself. Including the woman who kindly bent over for me.

The prime culprit behind the terror some people are experiencing is in many cases not the virus itself. It is the unsubstantiated fear porn vomited out by local and national media, underpinned by government sponsorship, and perpetuated by people still paying heed to the fuckwits on the TV.

And now the promise that vaccines would end lockdown is gradually being reined back, a notch here and a tweak there. But that’s another story.

296. Moondogs

The full moon has long fascinated me. Ever since my twenties and thirties, I have experienced deep and often very negative mood swings in the days leading up to the monthly event. Sometimes it has been frightening to realsie just how out of control my emotions have felt.

I know I am not alone. And that there is no precise explanation for why this happens. We all know that the moon is responsible for the earth’s tides; and exerts its most ferocious pull when at its brightest. Given that our bodies are at least 50% water, why would a full moon not have some type of effect upon us?

On Thursday, 28 January, Maureen told me that the full moon that evening – the first in the calendar year – was known as the Wolf Moon. She said she had read of a (human) group that would be out howling at the orb.

“I’d like to do that,” I said. “Fancy it?”

I reckon most wives, certainly those of our age, would say (or think) “grow up”. But Maureen isn’t that partner. She agreed that it might be fun.

We togged up for the cold night and went into the dark back garden. The moon was shrouded by cloud, but no matter. The allotted time was 8.16p.m so I gave a few warm-up howls in the preceding minutes. Letting the lungs, diaphragm and throat work a little more each time.

Then came the moment and we let rip. It felt joyous, expressive, purging and at times hilarious. Not unlike sex. None of the neighbours came out and joined in.  

Wolves apparently howl for numerous reasons. To define territory, locate pack members, reinforce social bonds, and coordinate hunting.

We howled for sheer pleasure.

This little clip that might give a flavour of how enjoyable it was.

295. The Bowers re-up

From age 7 to 19, I lived in Bowers Gifford, a drowsy Essex village on the outskirts of Basildon. Memories of that semi-rural home are very happy, give or take a few exceptions.  

Along a very quiet road (Church Road) near to our house, you could cycle or walk south, fields on each side, towards the Thames. After a half mile, the land dips down to square miles of marshland which stretch out to the river. As kids, brother Neil and I would cycle down the hill at breakneck speed, usually halting along the flat by St Margarets church.

Rolling back the decades, I pulled up outside St Margarets again two weeks ago. This time in the car. It’s a beautiful building, believed to be about 600 years old.

Smiling, recalling my two years as a choirboy. Swinging on the long church bell ropes, climbing up into Father Ford’s belfry. Giggling in the pews to ease the boredom of the Sunday morning service.

50 yards away, the sight of the railway bridge brought back the time when a few of us – probably 10, 11 and 12-year old kids – scrambled up the embankment.

For a dare, I placed a stone on the line. Wondering how easily the next train would crush it. Never a bad lad…..but I did like to try stuff. The driver probably shat himself. The police were there in 10 minutes. The coppers and my parents both tore strips off me. I could have de-railed the train, they reckoned. And so of course young Kevin wondered (fantasised?) what that would have been like.

The road beyond the bridge once led out to some farm buildings. 50 years later, it has become a car park, serving the newly-created Bowers Marsh Nature Reserve. It’s the first time here for Maureen and I.

No café or toilets or play area – just an RSPB bird sanctuary that does what it says on the tin by bringing together several different wild wetland habitats ringed and interspersed by a series of trails to walk. Even if you know very little about wetfowl (ie me and the missus) it’s a glory to be out in the fresh air under a sky that always seems bigger when out by the estuary.

It was cold, so we wrapped up all warm and cosy.

I think we found the 5 km Wetland Trail, more by chance than any planning. It turned out to be a long circular route that encompasses a series of saline and freshwater lagoons. Some are fenced in to stop foxes intruding.

The odd sign or two pointed the way.

Following the path, we saw reedbeds and wild red berries.

Occasional benches scattered here and there. The odd lone birder peering through their bins. Everyone keeping their distance.

And the birds of course. We thought the one on the fence was a raven, but it could have been a crow.

Loads of Canada geese are around, as well as mallards, lapwings and plover. Lots more, but my eye is amateur and my binoculars low class.  

Then there is the thing on a nearby ridge. Is it a watering machine?

It makes me think of the orgone machine in the Kate Bush video for ‘Cloudbusting’ (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IRHA9W-zExQ).

There is a deep quiet out on these marshes. Beautifully interrupted at one stage by a goose flying overhead. The sound of its wings cuts the air with a magical energy.  

Now and again a train moved along the Fenchurch Street line, in the distance. At one point two met, silver tubes seeming to merge and shorten before extending and disentangling.

Here are some other sights. The play of the light out here is liminal.

At one stage, Maureen bent to do something below my waist. I love my wife.

Eventually, after several miles, the path swings back around towards the car park and church.

We went past a tree with a hole.

Up on the distant hill, we could see Pitsea.

Kids there were tougher than their Bowers Gifford peers. I used to take the train from Pitsea to East London, to watch games at West Ham, my darling football team.

The farmer who once owned the buildings at the top of the next pic was not a fan of the young Kevin.

More than once he knocked on our door because I had been turning his haystacks into creative buildings, chopping down a small tree or two or rolling gleefully in his corn. Kids will be kids. I’m genuinely sorry, if it makes any difference all these years later. He didn’t much care for my dad either, after the old man burned the plastic from copper wire at the back of our house…right by his barley fields.

The church came into view again.

It reminded me of how I joined the choir so as to get in the football team that Father Ford had assembled. We didn’t play very often. Instead – I somehow got to be head choirboy – they must have been so short of decent singers! Then I discovered T Rex and David Bowie, and said my goodbyes to cassocks, chasubles and swinging thuribles.

By now Maureen needed a wee, so we found the car, and headed away. To Pitsea. Where there were once toilets in Howards Park. But they were absent now.

Had my first proper fight in this park, aged 8. I got pummelled by a bigger kid on a roundabout. Decided there and then that it was a mug’s game.  

We found toilets in an Aldi, then pulled in at Pitsea Broadway, for a bag of chips.

Hot, salted and vinegared. Munched them in the car, people watching. A perfect way to finish, before another trip down memory lane, driving back to Chelmsford through Basildon’s cramped houses and strained-looking streets. A huge contrast with the open sky of Bowers marshes.

It is so difficult to have any kind of day out right now, but we did. It made me throb with contentment for the next 48 hours.

Simple pleasures can bring great happiness.

294. Dad’s gift, amid the maelstrom

Ignoring the war-like barrage of Covid-19 news that has decimated 2020, my year has been dominated by the need to look after my dad. Nearing his 93rd birthday, and taking a range of medications, he is vulnerable to the virus. No surprise that my brother and I have kept him far away from most situations where Covid transmission is a possibility. It is impossible to make his ‘bubble’ watertight (he very occasionally wanders to his local newsagent while we are absent), but we have done all we can.

He is also terribly frail. And increasingly impacted by dementia. So we have kept the house clean, cooked his meals, changed his sheets, cut his hair and shaved him, done the shopping, and generally acted as his arms, legs and brain.

The great reward is that I have come to know his softer side, once-hidden. He loves to chat, above all else. Although huge gaps blight his memory, he still talks very clearly and with great relish about his first two decades. Listening, I have come to understand how he became somebody that naturally sides with underdogs and takes a contrarian view. As his offspring, I’ve inherited that gift.

I’m not sure that Dad ever said to me that if you see 95 people walking one way, tag onto four heading in the other direction. But that was usually the gist. The older I get, the more disinclined I am to follow any crowd.

That genetic trait kicks in even while doing my best to keep his house and personal space Covid-free. The journalist in me sees a wider, starker picture, one where much of the world has handed over its collective mind, unquestioning, far too easily, to the coronavirus narrative.

My thinking goes this way. Brother Neil and I have taken responsibility for Dad. He is one of the vulnerable. So we distance ourselves from people, with a few close family exceptions. Have done for 9 months. We are especially careful with our hygiene. And he sees nobody else inside the house. None of this is rocket science.

Here’s the question. Why would we – or other carers – need businesses and schools and pubs and borders to close, or the healthy to quarantine themselves? Or ‘tiered’ social restrictions decided by a divided SAGE committee. How can any of that help the most at risk, who are already shielded? Isolation and atomisation is not how the healthy sections of a population build natural immunity to infectious diseases. (Remember immune systems? They are amazing, and you have one, whatever the newsreaders may try and tell us.)

To protect Dad from a virus whose fatality rate is slightly worse than a bad flu season, Neil and I do not need lonely people to be confined in their homes; nor the NHS to postpone its cancer operations. It does not matter if Covid transmission speed accelerates 70%, because it can come to him only through us, and we keep our worlds tightly limited.

End of. There is nothing complex or far-sighted in any of this opinion. It is common sense, traditional practice for disease control.

And yet every day, I watch our world being shaken upside down, to combat a clearly measurable foe. I was hesitant to call out insanity at the beginning, as the UK seemed to be in a unique, very frightening situation. Maybe the March lockdown was necessary so we could take stock. But in recent months a shedload of peer-reviewed studies have emerged showing that the downside of lockdowns far outweigh the benefits, including long-term fatality numbers.

The world economy has been torn to pieces by the lockdowns. Tens of millions of people’s livelihoods ruined. Poverty and mental illness rising steeply. Health and education services shrunken. Holidays and gatherings and socialising curtailed or gone.

And for what? Globally, there has been around a 1 in 4,000 fatality rate ‘with Covid-19’, and a much smaller death rate ‘from’ it.

Back in blog 287, I relayed how the US Center for Disease Control (CDC) acknowledged that only about 6% of the reported Covid deaths in the US by August 2020 were due to Covid alone, as in “died from the virus and no other causes.”

The other 94% – mostly elderly people – had prior medical conditions that were potentially lethal on their own, the CDC said. This sifting reduced the death-by-Covid-only number in the US from 185,000 to about 11,000 over an 8-month period. In the same period, about 30,000 people died in US car wrecks. Them’s the official facts.

If you are healthy and not elderly, that is the strength of the risk in the world’s most afflicted country. Even if you add in the numbers of fatalities in the subsequent four months, there is clearly more chance of dying in a car crash. There sits the reality upon which our world has been collapsed.

In the UK, basic freedoms have been eliminated to be replaced by curfews, house imprisonment, border controls, travel restrictions, prohibition of worship, limited access to doctors, the army on the Liverpool streets, suppression of free speech, arrests of protesters, and neighbours encouraged to shop one another. All fed by a mainstream propaganda blitz worthy of wartime. Driven by people in lab coats. Strikes me as a bit, what’s that word…….Nazi? Too strong? How about disproportionate?

In a genuine pandemic, to complain about any of this would be daft. In reality, nobody (thankfully) has died from Covid-19 in my village of around 500 people, which has a greater than average number of retired people. Some individuals have become ill, as will happen with all major respiratory viruses. The sole fatality I have any connection to, anywhere, was my cousin’s father-in-law, who died in Sussex of a heart condition in a care home. But because he had showed positive on a test he was labelled as a ‘with Covid’ death. This enraged my cousin’s husband, who is a retired GP, and had observed his father’s medical situation until the end.

I spoke to a friend yesterday who knows many hundreds of people in the UK. He knew of one Covid-related fatality. “Where?” I asked. “Paris” he said.

The excess death statistics around the world at the end of the year will be fascinating, particularly if they match up with previous years. The money spent on furloughing people will be equally interesting. Imagine if it had all been spent on building new NHS wards and training fresh staff, to cope with some very serious capacity issues.

Best leave it there. The facts speak for themselves. If the fatality trends change, I will change my mind.

To round off, I’m wishing anyone reading this a seriously healthy and happy Christmas.

Thanks very much for looking in on the blogs. That helps keep me going.

PS. Does Matt Hancock resemble a British cousin of Agent Smith, from the Matrix?

292. Relishing Richie

Until quite recently, reaching 10 p.m. on a weekday night signalled a clear end to the day. The TV drama or Netflix film or football live stream was over. The options were to watch the TV news, which would be shite, biased and presented by muppets.  Or to go to bed and read until sleep descended.

And then a friend told me she had been crying tears of laughter earlier that evening, listening on the Internet to the Richie Allen show. I had heard Richie now and again down the years, as I cast around for reliable forms of news alternatives, away from the growingly moribund, corporate-controlled mainstream. But I didn’t have much of a view either way. If a memory persisted, it was of a booming Irishman who sounded confident but polite as he talked to various people and tore apart what the TV and papers were saying.

From his dwelling in Salford, near Manchester, Richie puts out his show live from Monday to Friday, usually starting at 5p.m. I saw that the recordings were available later in the day on Podomatic, and so tuned in for the first time about six months ago. I didn’t know then that (if Richie is telling the truth, which he prides himself on) the show has the biggest audience for any independent European radio programme.

He has been a broadcast journalist for most of this century. It soon became clear that he focused on stuff that interested me. In particular, the sheer ineptitude of most news media. The endless number of well-paid journalists who lick arse and duck from asking the hardest questions. The frailty of our democracy. The corruption of global institutions. And, of course, Covid-19. Pulling the subject apart every night in a way that digs far deeper than the talking heads. ‘Covering the stories that the MSM won’t,’ is the show’s brand line.

Just as good, Richie likes sport and music. He likes ideas. And he tells jokes. He talks about his French partner, Carolyn, with an exquisite mix of love and wit. He talks about his friends, and his beloved Irish roots, alongside his despair at Ireland’s current situation. And he mercilessly mocks the people that run the world, without censoring himself or worrying about the PC/’woke’ communities. I like that about him more than anything else.

Generally, Richie talks for about 45 minutes, and allocates around an hour for his guests to talk. Every few weeks there are phone ins from listeners, often with unpredictably fascinating topics.

It’s definitely one of those shows that people will either love or hate. You cannot feel indifferent about the guy. Richie strives for balance, by lacing his show with a spread of fascinating guests, from all walks of life. His politics are leftfield, but he has no problem with talking to those on the right. As journalists should be, he is more interested in the ‘why’ and the ‘how’ rather than political choices. Take it from me though, it might be better to steer clear if you have fixed views or are easily offended.

I am anything but. Hence the last two hours of the day are looked forward to with relish. It has made the second half of this awful year so much more enjoyable.

291. A man walks into a bar

The last three blogs on this site all involve visits to pubs and bars. I have enjoyed nearly 50 years of that pleasure. Not because I crave alcohol. I can go for weeks without.

It is the other people, the chat, the lifting of self-consciousness, the sheer sociability. The smell and taste of the alcohol plays its part, but the possibilities opening take centre stage. Maybe Germaine Greer will talk to you. Could be the guy next to you at the bar once met the Queen; or was in prison for tax evasion. Your eye becomes more lustful with each drink. You might need Dutch courage to ask your brother or friend for a temporary loan.

That sense of freely merging with the new and unpredictable is enshrined and embodied in the classic joke opening where a man (or woman) walks into a bar. Perhaps he/she will then encounter an Englishman, Scotsman and an Irishman. Maybe a horse will be serving the liquor, or a dog will be sitting alone with a bowl of beer. The drink may have a transforming effect on the characters. Disrobing may occur. Vomiting or violence could ensue. The dog may show astonishment at the horse’s fluency in German.  

A couple of months ago I interrupted an afternoon countryside walk in mid-Essex by entering The Compasses hostelry, in the remote hamlet of Littley Green. I waited at the bar to be served, standing as proscribed, at a social distance from other punters. I must have been 9 feet from the nearest person, lost in so many good memories of the place.

Something I have always done without thinking is to lean on the bar. Deep in thought, I inadvertently stepped past a green line on the floor, placed both elbows on the dark panelled wood, let my eye rove along the optics and the various photos adorning the back wall.

It was a terrible mistake. The visored guy behind the bar almost leaped at me, barking out that I needed to stand behind the green line. Wow.

I complied, apologising that “old habits got the better of me”. He didn’t reply: but set about spraying the infected area and vigorously wiping away my dangerous germs.

I bought a pint. He served it sullenly. I understood. Maybe he was genuinely scared.

He was certainly being paid to observe official hygiene protocol as part of his job. I had just provided him with an unexpected and unwanted pain.

The regulations he was observing have subsequently tightened. When I started writing this, you could not enter a pub in Essex – nor go to the toilet – without wearing a face mask. You could sit outside with a friend, but not inside, after Essex was moved to the UK government’s Tier Two alert grading. Pubs closed at 10 p.m.

I suppose there were jokes waiting to be discovered somewhere in all the bureaucracy; they don’t spring to mind easily. Maybe a man tries to enter a bar but has forgotten his mask. So he sits outside and tries to order a pint using his phone app, but the horse brings him a bourbon. Four Jack Daniels later, he tries to kiss the horse, which is looking ever more attractive, but is wearing a visor. About to go home, he sees a mass of tiny Covid-19 particles congregating 50 yards away, waiting until their 10 p.m. moment, when they will pounce.  

Not funny. I know. It really isn’t.

For the past week or so, all British pubs have completely closed their doors, until the government declares an end to lockdown. When I drive to see my father, or take my daily exercise, they sit empty and unused, no sign of life.

Many of Britain’s 60,000 plus pubs were already under hefty financial pressure. Some will clearly not survive this time in our history. I can’t help wondering if the pubs that make it through will ever be the same. Will there be restrictions on who can enter, linked to taking vaccines or flashing a ‘health passport’? Will there be screens all over the place? Arrows on the floor? Service at the tables? Card-only payments?

If so, I might call it a day. Keep the good memories. Leave the new pub experience to others.

290. Was that Germaine?

It has been difficult to feel free and happy this year, for reasons that need no explanation. One of the more uplifting highlights was an afternoon out on the bike in late July.

I stopped after 6 miles in the Essex village of Writtle, at the Wheatsheaf, a little old pub with a decent beer selection. One cold lager later, I took a slow ride out to Fyfield, about 8 miles away, for a second chilled beer in the back garden of the Black Bull pub. So relaxing. The ride back – on roads with virtually zero traffic – was ecstatic beyond words. Everyone should cycle, mildly drunk, through deserted countryside. Where inner magic meets outer glory.

I probably should have gone home, but the sun was still high in the sky, my mood was dancing, and I thought to myself: “More of this moment is necessary.” Back at Writtle, I decamped at the Rose & Crown, opposite the Wheatsheaf. The garden was half-full, and a third lager beckoned.

I parked my bike at the back of the garden, away from anybody else. Coming back from the bar with another cold beer, I noticed an elderly woman at the nearest table. Grey-haired, maybe in her late 70s, she looked up from her notebook, in which she carried on writing for the next hour. There was definitely a resemblance to the Australian feminist writer Germaine Greer. 

Vibrating with happiness in the sunshine, I recalled watching a 2011 documentary on Germaine, a month or so previously. In this, she said she would continue to live in Essex for the rest of her days.

The woman had her back to me. Deep in thought as she wrote.

A discreet photo proved irresistible.

I listened hard as she talked occasionally to her well-behaved dog. Was I kidding myself that she sounded half-Brit, half-Aussie? She had said in 2011 that dogs ruined bluebells. Maybe age had brought the need for a loyal companion.

There was no certainty, so I could not be starstruck. Nonetheless I got to thinking about Germaine’s blunt maverick streak – and her good looks in younger days. How she would bait TV presenters and men in general with a mixture of sassiness, wit and radical ideas.

I fetched myself a fourth beer, deciding to use a very quiet back route to Great Waltham that would add 20 minutes but remove almost any threat from traffic to a drunken cyclist. As I returned to my table, the woman was ordering two coffees from the garden waitress. 

Two. A singular type of request. Who orders two coffees?

I wanted a frontal photo. I wanted to talk to her, to find out. But have always been respectful of the privacy of others. And I might slur a few words, due to the alcohol. Then of course there was the Covid-19 distancing guideline. In any case, why would she welcome any intrusion, given her absorption in her notebook? If it was Germaine, she was surely enjoying the anonymity?

But when she stood to leave, and looked over, I had to ask: “Has anyone ever said you look like Germaine Greer?”

The accent was believably Essex now. “Well then I had better see what she looks like.” Said with a smile that had more than a little craft.

The woman and her dog then walked away with a slight stiffness that would characterise many of her age group.  I remembered that Germaine had been struggling to walk in the documentary, anticipating a hip operation to ease the discomfort. Nine years on now.

So maybe I fleetingly met Germaine Greer. She always had guile. And it is not hard to imagine her scribbling away in a pub garden, concepts flying around as she observed humanity.

Whatever, it was a cracking day out. And I got home in one piece.

PS I just googled Germaine Greer’s dog and found this. I think it’s a different dog. Maybe she has a new canine? Or maybe my well-lubricated imagination was working overtime!




289. Back to the source

 

When I was a kid, I knew that I would want a wife in adulthood. Maybe that’s unusual for a male?

To the young Kevin, at the tender age of 8 or 9, it looked like the best deal. I would see old men walking around slowly, their faces lined, and think: ‘if it comes to that, which it probably will, I’ll be needing a romantic companion to cheer my journey’.

I met mine on 24 September 1980. At the Cricketers pub in Southend-on-Sea, Essex. It was my mate John Devane’s 24th birthday. Maureen turned up in a small crowd. We went for a curry, where I sat opposite my future wife. Never a fast mover, I drove home later thinking how I would enjoy meeting her again. In another 10 weeks or so we did. A few weeks after that, somebody took this photo.

Last week, exactly 40 years after our first mutual sighting, we went back to the pub. The return pilgrimage involved a fish and chip supper, which we had to eat in the car, due to driving rain that eliminated any chance of sitting by the sea that evening. Lauren, our eldest daughter, came along for the ride. She was deeply amused that our anniversary weather was so foul.

Then we found the pub. Glad to escape the relentless rain.

The gaff was almost unrecognisable from the meeting place of four decades ago, when it had a no-frills, homely charm. Something, a vibe, had disappeared, replaced by a more corporate ambience. The Covid regulations – triggering the safety signs and floor markings – hardly helped. But it didn’t matter. We had a drink. Toasted the fateful moment, 40 years on.

My hearing isn’t what it used to be, especially when there is background noise. Lauren and Maureen chatted, moving in and out of earshot.

I mused on why I love my wife, and what a lucky lad I’ve been. No hesitation in saying that the allure of a good-looking, sexy, kind and intelligent woman has been a huge driving force. Four decades on, age has shrunk and diluted the testosterone roar that accompanied our visit to Wales in 1981. But there is still a quiet rumble. And Llandudno memories will warm me to the grave.

There is so much more. Maureen looks after me. Better than I care for myself. That kindness was important in our early days; and is something I have come to rely upon and cherish. It extends, naturally, to everyone in her orbit. From friends, relatives and neighbours to strangers in the supermarket. She loves to help. She cared for her parents and her uncle in their last years, has helped at a Chelmsford day centre for the homeless and collected for the local hospice.

I’ve swum in that kindness. She tends to my aches, listens to my spectrum of grumbles and complaints, and does what she can. Laughs at my attempts at humour, dishes out common sense advice for my conundrums, responds if I ask for something specific. Supports me in my choices, and forgives me in my errors, some of which would have sent less tolerant women fleeing.

Imagine being her child. I’ve witnessed that magic at first-hand, watching her mother our three kids. Seeing comfort, nurture and guidance tumble out of her like water from a spring. She’s a qualified nursery nurse and working nanny, but her skills with young ones are innate, from the heart.

Yet she is modest – a strange and wonderful thing, given the span of her talents. She could easily have been a chef or interior designer. Instead we have been the beneficiaries, fed with deliciously healthy meals and housed in residences that boom with colour and craft. The girl could paint for Essex, or even England.

As the kids have grown up, she has become my co-adventurer again. Holidays across England, Belgium, France and the Netherlands. We have got drunk together too often to recall, taken magic mushrooms together, meditated together. I love walking in the countryside with her and have adored the fun of dancing with her. I should add that she has the kiss of an angel.

I’ll stop there, in case she finally decides to become big-headed.

She was very taken with a phrase that we came across recently. ‘Be calm, be beautiful, be love.’ It sums her up.

As for me, I think I did OK. Very grateful for that.

288. RIP the Viper

We always had to dig deep on the final hill, which became progressively steeper until about 40 yards away from the pub. When you arrived, panting with exertion, almost unable to get off the bike, there was usually an unoccupied bench outside to flop down at. In minutes, you would be drinking from a pint of Brewers Gold or Oscar Wilde, looking at the surrounding woods, feeling the sun and the breeze, thanking the universe for being alive.

Such was my anticipation last Friday, September 11. A noted day for disasters. Hadn’t tackled the hill for a couple of years. So it was good to get to the top in one piece, aged 63. Wheezing like a dog, but cleanly, as The Viper came into sight. It seemed quiet for a Friday lunchtime. No cars parked in the adjacent space across the road. And no voices drifting through the warm air. Intuition whispered a terrible message. ‘Ah fuck, surely not?’

It stood there. Stark and still. Doors closed. No seats or benches. Weeds littering the grounds where I had marvelled at the sheer pleasure of drinking beer with friends.

Behind me, Martin groaned at the miserable view. We peered in through dirty curtains at deserted rooms. No sign of life. Mooted the idea of breaking in and seeing if we could find a couple of leftover bottles from the local Crouch Vale Brewery.

Back in Blog 227, I logged the demise of another country pub (the Three Elms, near Mashbury), and the wider decline of rural pub numbers. It isn’t an unexpected trend, as people stay within drink-driving limits and buy their alcohol from supermarkets. Unless you are serving food good enough to draw repeat visits, or have loyal, thirsty locals, running a country pub has become a slow ticket to extinction.

But the Viper! Shit. It was iconic, as if a space craft had blasted a clearing in the woods at Mill Green, Fryerning (about 7 miles southwest of Chelmsford) and planted the most perfect pub. A literal oasis.

MILL GREEN PUB WALK (30/6/17) - YouTube

I remembered listening to the landlady talking outside a few summers back, as she watered her roses. It had been a brilliant summer’s evening, but there were only half a dozen punters spread around the lawn. My impression was that she wore a brave face.

Not sure when she called it a day. A bit of rooting around on the Internet showed it had closed by the end of 2019, due to a “quarrel with the pub owner”. Maybe she couldn’t pay the rent.

All I can do is pay tribute with memories. I remember jumping in a taxi with Maureen and our friends Jono and Gina almost 20 years ago, so that we could drink ourselves happy in the lovely snug public bar. We did just that. Must have shoved many twenties and tens into their till. The conversations were free, happy, absurd and probably pornographic. The same taxi took us home hours later. A 14-mile round trip. The felicitations never let up.

THE VIPER, Ingatestone - Restaurant Reviews, Photos & Phone Number -  Tripadvisor

For Jono and I, it was a deep sacrament to cycle there and neck a few ales. The route outwards was uphill for significant stretches, hard work, but often tempered by the sight of deer in the fields and woods, and sometimes bats flying above us at night, amid the never-diminishing anticipation. Just the first sight of the place was enough to get you high, as your lungs heaved and puffed from the climb. Conversations were a release of the imagination, a dive into the surreal and the impossible, a brew of lust and laughter. We confided our fears and dreams, and it felt like no other time. As well as Jono, I also went there regularly with brother Neil, and a couple of old friends, Tony and Steve (see Blog 10).

The Viper was where I drank my first single malt. On a December evening. A warm habit to acquire. Tony fell into a ditch on the way home, jumped back on the bike and pedalled on as if nothing had happened. Neil and I turned up on our bikes one midweek evening in 2018 to find a beer festival getting underway. I enjoyed a cinnamon-flavoured ale. Maureen remembers the shade of the surrounding woods on hot days.

The Viper, Mill Green - Wikipedia

Even when time was called, the experience was not over. Because what goes up slowly can come down very fast. In the dark, Viper Hill, as I think of it, was always a reckless thrill. With a few pints inside, the initial descent was mesmerising, with gathering acceleration and wind whistling past your ears. Halfway down, lit sparsely, the road quickly bends right, enough that you need to be in the middle or already braking if nearer the edge. Nobody ever came off, but I nearly shat myself a few times, with the distraction of Jono’s rebel yells breaking concentration yet adding to the madness as you somehow surged forward into the darkness at speeds of at least 30 miles an hour. Into a dip, up a small rise and then another swift, curving descent before the route levelled out.

Magical and legendary.

And so Martin and I re-enacted it on Friday. After lunch at the nearby Cricketers pub, now unhindered by any competition, we came back to Viper Hill.

Plenty of daylight, but that bend hasn’t softened. My tyres strayed worryingly close to the undergrowth beside the road, pumping a surge of adrenalin that made the next few hundred yards feel like I was 19 again.

It’s a dry life without a bit of risk. I’ll miss the Viper.