172. Daffodils in Romford, dosh at home

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Walking for 15 minutes through Harold Hill’s monotonous rows of housing, my feet hardly touched the ground.

Daffodils in brightest yellow bloom surrounded the bus stop on the A12. A swathe swaying hardily in the spring breeze, the flowers evinced the magic that I felt on that weekday in late February 1985.

Removing the Ladbrokes tie, for the last time, I checked again to make sure that my pocket held no shop keys. That absence of clanging metal made me clench tightly inside. I was gorgeously, blissfully unemployed, of my own free will. It is not often in life that we get to do something that lights up multiple pleasure centres with anticipation, and keeps them lit. My awareness of that felicity doubled the delight. Flowers rarely caught my eye.

I could take no more of the shop manager’s job. With our wedding only little more than 5 weeks away, I had asked Maureen if she trusted me enough to try my hand at turning my betting system into a way to earn regular money. We had taken out a mortgage on the flat in Chelmsford some six months previous, but the answer was still yes. She said yes. Allowed to follow my heart. No wonder I wanted to marry her.

I had a month’s wages in my pocket, to cover the bills through March. I was ecstatic. And free, travelling home now from Romford’s environs for the last time. I wanted to share my joy with all of the strained faces on the bus, who would likely be doing the same thing tomorrow.

What more love could any man want? Maybe Maureen thought it better for me to get the notion out of my system once and for all, as I had increasingly talked of life as a professional punter. You would have to ask her. But I know she also saw my dedication to the idea, to the discipline required, and respected it. She had seen me study for countless hours, betting small, and keeping our money safe for the two years we had lived together. She took a chance on me.

A wider truth is that our marriage has consistently granted each other the freedom to opt out of conventional job situations. This was one epitome, an epiphany.

Four of those five weeks were among the happiest of my life. Doing exactly what I wanted, with a near-religious devotion, the results went as I had hoped and envisaged.

This afternoon I rummaged around in the shed and dug out the red exercise book that captured my punting exploits. It doesn’t look much, I know, but the contents were my heartfelt equivalent of the Dead Sea Scrolls. My very own Nag Hammadi library.

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The first bet I had was on Friday 1st March. St William won a Newbury handicap chase. You might be able to decipher the scrawl below to see my note that I took a price of 7/2. I don’t have a record of the bet amounts. Maybe £15 win. Great start, simply by sticking with VDW’s criteria of form, class and times on the clock. What a feeling.

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The second bet, on the next day, was Half Free. It came third. No good. I waited a week until 9 March, when Floyd looked nailed on for a Sandown handicap hurdle. The little note in red records that 2/1 was available in the morning.

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Two out of three. So far, so very good. Now the big test was looming. The Cheltenham National Hunt festival, described in Blog 157. Up early on Tuesday 12th March, one day after my birthday, I ran home from the newsagents in my haste to get indoors and translate the Sporting Life form lines into numbers. Precious, delicious numbers, holding the keys to all kingdoms.

Just the one bet stood out: Rose Ravine in the Stayers Hurdle. I took 5/1 on the phone with William Hill. In she went, hanging on after a stewards’ enquiry. I had told Sue’s husband Martin, who also backed the filly. Shared delight on the telephone. On the Wednesday, Badsworth Boy won for me at 11/8. Another selection, Green Bramble, fell. Not much change on the day.

Thursday was the big day, Gold Cup day. There was money in the pot, but more would be needed to maintain this foray into enchantment. Forgive N’ Forget ticked all of the boxes at 7/1. I think I backed it with about £30 each way. Again, Martin came on board, enjoying the crack and mightly amused, I think, at my fanaticism to this cause.

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Not only did Forgive N Forget win, cruising imperiously up the Cheltenham hill to young Kevin’s roars and shouts. West Tip won the next race at 6/1. Another VDW selection. As was Floyd, at 5/2, in the last race of the day. Both backed by smaller stakes that would not blow the Gold Cup earnings. My recollection is coming out of the week about £450-£500 ahead, considerably more money than Ladbrokes paid me in one month. Some was tucked away for wedding expenses, more set aside for paying the April bills, and the rest set aside to carry on this unbelievably fulfilling way to go about one’s days.

It wasn’t luck. Although there was obviously an element of very good fortune at work in catching a hefty number of selections, within a short period of three days, that all fell neatly into VDW’s category of a compelling bet. I believe that there was art and some instinct in interpreting the science. I compiled my own conclusions to the meeting, below.

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The bets were then few and far between for a fortnight, treading water until the end-March Grand National meeting at Aintree. Then disaster, as a series of selections all lost or fell over, and suddenly I was faced with the grim reality of a nearly-exhausted betting bank, no other future income, and our wedding just one week away.

There was much learning in this, but more important considerations were pressing. I immediately promised Maureen to look for a job, and found one soon after the nuptials.

It would not be exaggerating to say that I mourned the loss of that 4-5 week spell for many, many years afterwards. Coming at it now, from the retrospect of 34 years, I see it as a mini-triumph. A festival of happiness.

We all have to do the things we love, for at least some period of our lives. Otherwise what is the point?

 

 

171. The Dando mystery

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You would think that the BBC would have pulled out all the stops to put together a deeply researched and multi-layered documentary on its former broadcaster Jill Dando, who was killed in April 1999 on the doorstep of her West London home.

I watched ‘The Murder of Jill Dando’ last night because of the unsolved nature of the case, hoping for some insights into the killer’s motive, and a deeper understanding of how the Metropolitan Police tackled the murder of an almost-universally popular woman.

She was an attractive female. I had forgotten. After 10 minutes of old TV clips it was obvious that men would have sought her company. Yet throughout the programme there was not a mention of her love life, which is often the first place to begin murder investigations.

Sitting on the sofa, I found myself Googling the identity of her partner at the time. This was Alan Farthing, who was due to marry Jill five months before her shooting in cold blood. Moreover, at the time of the shooting, she had arrived at her home following a Hammersmith shopping trip, just hours after spending the night at Mr Farthing’s home in Chiswick. You would have thought this would be referenced, even if he had chosen to respect her memory with a refusal to appear or a firm ‘no comment’. I found this complete exclusion from the one-hour show puzzling.

Googling further, it transpired that Mr Farthing was employed by Buckingham Palace. Wikipedia describes him as an English obstetrician and gynaecologist and Surgeon-Gynaecologist to Queen Elizabeth II’s Royal Household. Another Google foray revealed that he helped to deliver all three of the Duchess of Cambridge’s children. Again, while none of that offers any clue, it is interesting context, that viewers would have perked up at. Did the Palace issue the BBC with instructions not to mention him?

The BBC flagged up the programme as containing ‘never before seen footage’. If so, it was hardly compelling. Much of the documentary focused on the key suspect, Barry George. An individual with what are now termed additional needs. Also a history of sexual offences and stalking. Nonetheless the sole incriminating evidence for his guilt was a miniscule amount of gun residue in his pocket. This could have come from other sources than his possession of a firearm, including proximity to an individual owning a firearm, experts on the programme confirmed.

Barry George was released on appeal eight years after his imprisonment. Which, as the programme progressed, looked more and more like the police identifying the easiest option for an arrest that satisfied the public need for catharsis.

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It was also mentioned too briefly that Jill Dando had almost certainly made enemies in gangland with her four years of presenting the ‘Crimewatch’ programme with co-host Nick Ross. This was a show which appealed for help from ordinary British people in providing new evidence in unsolved crimes. It seemed to me that the documentary could have focused on some of the Crimewatch revelations, and made at least a modicum of effort in this direction. For example, did any other public figure endure a similar execution? Jill Dando’s death involved one shot to the head, and a subsequent witness report had a smartly-dressed man walking briskly in a direction away from the crime scene. One theory was that it could have been a possible revenge attack by Serbians for the blowing up by NATO forces of their broadcasting centre in Belgrade.

Through most of the 60 minutes a voice in my head nagged. If Jill Dando was as committed to catching criminals as she genuinely appeared, one name might have loomed large in her mind. Sir Jimmy Savile.

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It has been well documented that many staff and hierarchy at the BBC knew of Saville’s prolific misdemeanours on the premises, involving rape and other sexual abuse, as part of a much wider asset of offences he carried out over 54 years between 1955 and 2009. These sometimes involved children under 10 years of age, but fear, intimidation and sometimes interventions by the powers-that-be prevented any follow-ups. Word of mouth is always a swift communicator. Did Jill Dando learn, and decide to out Saville using her prominent media position, long before the truths finally emerged after his death in 2011? Did Saville (or somebody else) in turn get wind and decide to use his underworld contacts to silence her?

I think that is a fair theory.

The copper in charge of the investigation, Hamish Campbell, intimated at one stage that he could see how Barry George might easily look like a ‘patsy’ – or fall guy – for the crime. It was almost the only interesting thing that he said. My final impression was one of omissions, of evidence glossed over. And of a police force under pressure from above.

I so wanted the two investigators from the BBC fictional series ‘Line of Duty’ – DS Arnott and DS Fleming – to come in and work on this one, looking at the police conduct. They always get it right, eventually, harried and cajoled by Superintendent Ted Kelly.

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170. Out of turn

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It was a straightforward left.

Moulsham Street carried on up the hill, past the Cricketers pub over on the right. But I had to turn 90 degrees left, keeping on the pavement, into St John’s Road, Chelmsford. Nothing could stop me. Gradually, slowly but steadily, everything on the left came into view. My turn was definitely working, but somehow I was already halfway across the road. My companions were shouting stuff about being run over. Couldn’t they see that I was managing this complex manoeuvre on my own terms and with a fair degree of skill? I knew where home was, and each passing second took me nearer. I was on course now, but on the wrong side of the road.

My nephew-in law Mark Hanks later compared this deft display of motor skills in January 1997 to an oil tanker changing direction. The endless glasses of champagne at Iris and Roy’s 50th anniversary celebrations, and then the session at the pub may have been a factor.

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Next thing I knew was waking up next to Maureen in our bedroom. Sunday morning. Headache. Queasy stomach. And the memory of what I had done coming back. Oh shit! You knobhead.

After the big Dubber family do at Essex Cricket Club, Maureen and I, her sisters, their children and their partners, had adjourned to the Kings Head pub in Moulsham Street. Beers in profusion had loosened my tongue. I was happy, as the previous week had been far more stressful than usual, due to Maureen’s sister Marilyn, who had insisted on trying to mastermind almost every last logistic of her parents’ anniversary function. Maureen had been spitting blood about not being allowed to contribute fully. All of that was over now, but a thought entered my head while chatting with Marilyn’s daughter Julia and her boyfriend Ben.

“Back in a minute,” I said. Marilyn was a few paces away, chatting with her sisters.

“You allright Kev?” she asked.

“Yeah, really enjoying it. Brilliant day. But there’s something I need to say.”

“Oh. What?”

“You really upset your sister over the preparations for today. I’ve had to deal with her coming home and fuming about you having the last word on every little detail.”

Before I could carry on with my brilliant dissection of her mistakes, she let out a loud wail, and collapsed onto the carpeted floor. Where she continued wailing. People surrounded her, murmuring words of encouragement. She was taken outside into the cold air, while I found new companions to chat to. I could see the effect of my words, but felt that the honesty was a painful but fair trade-off.

There have been too many of these errors of judgement in my life.

If there is some kind of ‘St. Peter moment’ after death (standing at the Pearly Gates, awaiting the judgement?) my time as a dad may count for something. Three decades of being there for Lauren, Josie and Lauren. They have had the best of me: nurture and support, emotional and financial, never violent, and as non-judgemental as possible. Realistically my best achievement.

Back to the bedroom, where Maureen was rightly moaning about the family fallout from my remarks. I mumbled something about how Marilyn needed feedback about her domineering sibling behaviour.

“And I know about your phone call with Sue,” she added.

Being hungover dulled the penetration of that remark.

Sue, Maureen’s best friend for over two decades, had called to announce her pregnancy a week earlier. I answered the phone. Several months previously, she had told Maureen and I that Martin, her husband, had hit her across the back during an argument with a rolled-up newspaper, hurting her. How forcefully she did not say. She had referred to him as “that nasty man”. The intimation was that the marriage might not last.

Possessed of any normal wisdom, I would have seen the probability that the couple had made up, in a big way. Instead, I made a split-second but sober decision to remind her of what she had told us.

It wasn’t spite, or mischief. Nor devil’s advocacy. The need to be an honest mirror is the best way I can describe it in retrospect. It was a concerned “are you sure?” conveyed with massive clumsiness.

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A better approach might have been to congratulate her and then work in the newspaper incident later in the conversation. Or not to mention it at all? Still not sure on that.

Sue then phoned Maureen separately, upset about my seemingly cold remarks. Things were never quite the same in the friendship again, and fell apart completely almost exactly seven years later. Seven years.

Like I say, I have made big errors in this life.

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169. Twenty-seven, twenty-eight……

 

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Consensus among child psychologists is that the first seven years of a child’s life are a formative influence in how that human develops, with the next seven also highly influential. The next seven, up to age 21, have some effect, relatively small. This seems to be the academic conclusion.

I wonder about the next seven? For example, is there anything more than coincidence grouping six successful and talented musicians – Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain, Amy Winehouse and Janis Joplin – who all took their own lives aged 27? I suspect that birthday number 28 has an immense power, resonating unseen through our subconscious and our psyches.

Two writers exerted a huge influence on my life between the ages of 21 and 28. Henry Miller (Blog 122) was the first, with his books Tropic of Capricorn and Tropic of Cancer. Also Sexus, Nexus, Plexus, Black Spring and the Colossus of Maroussi. Miller stepped into my head and never left. The first person who had ever clearly said to me that it was not just OK but actually very sane to reject the main ‘life’ option offered to adults.

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He asked: Why on earth would people follow such a narrow path? Wake, wash, travel, work, eat, work, travel, home. Eat, wash the dishes, listen to the news, iron the shirts, tidily fold the newspaper, sleep eight hours and do it again. Then recover at the weekend from this shite. No thanks, said Mr Miller. Nobody else in my life had ever questioned the predominant paradigm. Not my parents, nor my teachers. My friends mostly spoke of ‘getting on’ in the world, all bar one.

Miller spoke of baloney, waste and tragedy. Somebody else’s fake rules, foisted upon the unthinking. Why not do your own thing instead? Join your own dots. He did, and lived in near-poverty for much of his time. Still, I wanted to run around punching the air, screaming ‘hooray’. Somebody else knew what was in my head. They knew. It wasn’t just me that felt alienated by the notion of a career, or perplexed as to why people would wear suits, like kids unable to leave their school uniform behind. Henry Miller wrote with a poetic Shakespearean gravity, the wit and levity of Oscar Wilde, and the lewdness of a natural porn scriptwriter. He was the masterful wizard for me, and also for Steve Lowndes, who was inspired to write a letter to the Guardian, entitled ‘Why Work?’ This triggered a shedload of reactions, for and against.

My second major influence was Colin Wilson. Author of ‘The Outsider’, and then a hundred or more other books, usually non-fiction. Whereas Miller was chaotic, anarchic, unreasonable, excitable and volatile, Wilson was anything but. He came charging head on at the same challenge – what are we doing here, why are mainly wasting our time on the inessential, why do some of us feel cut off from society and how can we self-actualise – but with a precise scientific mind. Wilson did the hard yards, drifting from job to job, sometimes sleeping rough. He concluded that expanding one’s consciousness was the optimum route forward for humanity, and that sex or other forms of intense focus were the window out of the asylum, away from ‘the robot’ that keeps us in familiar channels.

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These two guys had shaped – or reinforced – my take on life by early 1985, as my 28th birthday approached. My working week still stole six of my seven days, albeit at a location nearer to home. I had persuaded Ladbrokes to relocate me to a betting shop in Harold Hill, near Romford. There I bussed each day, and back, to manage the gaff.

Ian Dury once mentioned Harold Hill in his song ‘This is what we find’

Home improvement expert
Harold Hill of Harold Hill
Of do-it-yourself dexterity
And double-glazing skill
Came home to find another gentleman’s kippers
In the grill
So sanded off his winkle
With his Black and Decker drill

Great vengeful lines but not very relevant. My kippers were grilled exclusively in Maureen’s very warm, luring oven. Nobody brought a drill into the shop, which was busy but more boring than the colourful East End equivalents of yore.

Big forces were now pulling and wrenching me, linking back to the three promises made to self in January 1982 (Blog 26). One of these – a pledge to write a book – was nowhere in sight. One day, but not now. But the aim of being in a long and happy relationship was well in train. I was head over heels in love with my partner, and happy that we were to be wed on April 6, 1985. I couldn’t imagine being with anybody else but Maureen.

The last target was to discover or invent a profitable system of selecting winning racehorses, and then use that to make money. I had latched onto methods described by a Dutch guy (Van der Wheil, Blog 143) who had written reams of stuff about the winning factors of form, class and race times, and how these could be rendered into simple numeric columns that pointed to the horses with the best chance, especially in races with the bigger prize money.

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VDW cited the opportunity to become the captain of your destiny, overcoming the “odds against” offered up by the material world. With honesty, he stressed again and again how only practice could open the floodgates, how only repeated discipline carried out over a span of years could bring about the desired effects. Not unlike the 10,000 hours of practice later famously recommended by Malcolm Gladstone.

VDW talked of how, on a number of occasions, he was certain that he had cracked the formula only for a set of previously overlooked criteria to pop up and return him to base; or his own undisciplined desires would get the better of him and he would bet too much; or stray beyond the tight confines of his rules and back horses whose names had no right to appear on his betting slips.

I read this bloke’s articles over and over, obsessively. Like a madman in a Dostoyevsky novel, for about 18 months, I had filled exercise books with race analyses, based on his methods. As these had become refined, with practice, some very fine results had emerged in the month before Christmas 1984, and the one after. A couple of hundred quid ahead.

There was a shade of Colin Wilson about VDW. Especially the talk of real freedom and transformation. Totally uninterested in gambling, but utterly absorbed by a mental problem that he was fixed on conquering, and taking control of his material circumstances as a result.

That was what I wanted. The desire had become almost overpowering and unbalancing, as my 28th birthday approached. Could it be conjoined with a happy relationship?

168. Where are they now?

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On 22 December 1984, we held a belated flat-warming party in Chelmsford. It was three months after moving in, so we doubled it up as a Christmas party. As we were discussing who to invite, Maureen said: “If we got married, it could also be an engagement party.”

She didn’t even go down on one knee. “Fair enough”, I said. Sorted. I loved being with her. If she wanted the ring, so be it.

Our treble celebration was fun. Maureen remembers a lime green table cloth in the dining room on which the nibbles were placed. I mainly recall the attendees.

Former Rose Valley house-mates Paul, Katie and Pete May turned up. Pete later became an author and the Guardian’s go-to man for West Ham comments. We had a curry in London a few years back. Paul commandeered the stereo, and treated us all to his favourite tunes. He played ABC’s ‘The Lexicon of Love’ repeatedly, to which I still remember dancing. Paul was found dead in the bath several years ago, after years of struggling with alcoholism, and splitting with Katie. We always remember his love of ABC, especially ‘The Look of Love’. Another favourite that evening, generating singalong, was ‘Come On Eileen’, by Dexys Midnight Runners.

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John and Tim Devane joined in the dancing. The twin brothers could swing their hips in relative sync, often to 1950s rock and roll. Both are still around, John happily retired but Tim afflicted with Parkinson’s Disease. John’s wife-to-be Carol also attended. John has provided Carol with the stability and kindness that her previous husband could not.

Also in attendance were Maureen’s work mates from the day nursery at University College of London (UCL), Sharon and Denise. Lovely people. I saw them both just one more time, when I went to UCL to hand in Maureen’s notice.

Another of her friends, Julie Hadert, came along. Always an enigma to me. The last time we saw Julie was about 8 years ago, when she was extremely concerned that her grand-daughter would unjustly be taken into care. No idea where she is now, but our feeling was that things would work out for her.

Guests also included my old Birmingham chum Steve Lowndes and his partner Sarah. Steve honked up in the bathroom, and took a fancy to Mandy, my former Ladbrokes cashier in Barking, who brought her boyfriend Ian over from Romford. Steve and Sarah divorced a couple of decades later. We never saw Mandy or Ian again. I fell out with Steve in 2006, after he was rude to my family one drunken Christmas. Johnny Price tells me he has found happiness with his old girlfriend Wendy, who left her husband and kids to be with him. I hope he has. Sarah drifted away.

Maureen’s best friend Sue and her husband Martin came along. They became harder work over the subsequent years, as Maureen and I never quite satisfied their PC and intellectual standards. Nor did we want to. Inevitably perhaps, I fell out with Sue in 2004, over a trivial issue that masked bigger differences. They live up in Sheringham now, on the Norfolk coast. Again, I wish them well. Happily, I didn’t fall out with anybody else at our party.

Margaret and Roger Patterson were there. Big Labour Party supporters. Roger has a unique wit and sense of self. They live in Woodbridge, Suffolk these days, near the grandkids. From Southend, John and Jane Attwell rocked up.  John was the camera operator for Thomas the Tank Engine and, among many other things, for a brilliant BBC drama set in Israel, entitled ‘An Honourable Woman’.

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Still happily married, they live in Leigh-on-Sea, right next door to their grandkids. How cool is that? John is a nice bloke. A real gentleman.

Maureen’s sister Margaret and her husband Ronnie rolled up very late. Ronnie turned out to be a complete and utter prick. He later found another woman for his fourth wife, but his legacy has been poisonous. Margaret lives alone in Great Baddow, Chelmsford, near John Devane. Her cat Leo was put down last week, which hit her hard.

Tony Palmer, one of the MGFs mentioned in Blog 165, also got his neck along to our bash. He brought some beer from Zimbabwe that wasn’t to everybody’s taste. Tony once cut the end from a condom that he lent to a friend. The rascal lives in Chesham now with his missus Eileen. Fred Conroy and Si Gaze were also there, another two Southend mates. Fred came out of the closet a few years later, and has lived happily with his partner Mikey ever since.

Si still works for a bank, living in Chalkwell, Southend. I haven’t seen him for three decades, but it will happen. He is the guy from Blog 3 who proclaimed at a disco that “I could go right through that”, while looking osmotically at a young lady. I’m pretty sure brothers Nic and Mike Beaver were there, maybe with their partners, now wives, Lorraine and Tina. I last saw Nic and Mike in 2015. Very stable and reliable lads. Nic (he won’t mind me saying) was the individual who shat onto a swan in Blog 60. Tina runs a publicity company – and I have promised her the film rights if my book ‘Out of Essex’ ever makes the big screen.

Nice memories. The groom-to-be and his wife-to-be spent much of the next day happily chatting about the party, as you do at that age, and without terrible hangovers. Really glad that a lot of the guests are still around, and within our friendship circle.

167. Back in the saddle

I rolled around in the sun yesterday, like a dog in the dirt, yelping and barking my joy out.

That’s how it felt anyway. Brother Neil called round at 3.30 and our first bike ride of 2019 kicked off. After 5 seconds I realised there was no helmet on my head. Turned around on the grass outside the house and fell off the bike. A lucky fall, no injury.

Then we headed out, north-east, to a tiny hamlet by the name of Fuller Street.

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A testing 6 mile ride, with plenty of hills to introduce those first lung-bursting sensations. Stunning countryside, bathed in spring light. Hawthorn spreading across the quiet lanes. First stop, the Square and Compasses pub.

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Named by a freemason? A proper, old-fashioned boozer, in the middle of nowhere, serving cask beer. Mine from the Nelson brewery in Chatham. We sat outside, chatting about dad, and football, and who knows what. The sunshine warming my blood and making me feel about 500% better than recently.

One pint later, back on the bikes and an easier 4 miles over to Littley Green, via Great Leighs. The beauty of these rides is how little traffic we encounter, on what are usually B roads. The next stop, The Compasses, might be my favourite pub.

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Again, it is in the back of beyond, and keeps good beer in a proper cellar. Such a lovely old building and bar. It is a repository of so many cycling memories. Another cracking pint, this time ‘Six Little Ships’ from a Leigh-on-Sea brewery. Essex fare.

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It will sound strange, but I don’t think my bruv and I have ever got on so well as yesterday. 60 years getting to know him, and still not finished. We talked without any conversational gaps for three hours.

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I don’t enjoy beer like I used to. Sometimes it seems to steal my mood and kidnap my balance. But cycling and sitting in the sunshine with a couple of pints inside you is different quality – one of the greatest pleasures I have ever known. You are not drunk, but there is an opening up that lends the passing countryside a hallucinatory feel. Sometimes I imagine I will die from joy, at the interplay of the shadow and the light, the birds soaring over the fields and the all-engrossing verdancy of it all.

Another three miles back home along more small lanes. We chose the 13-mile route as an ‘easy’ warm up for the much bigger laps available as the evenings lengthen. It is my happy medicine.

 

 

 

166. Autumn 1984

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A crowd slowly ascending the stairs. A maudlin, dark sea. Flecks of grey. A discordant noise. One head turns. The crowd never stops. The plodding climb. Faces without expression. Five days to go. Again the noise. More of a bleat, sharper and higher.

Maureen was grinning. Halfway up now. I gripped my copy of the Sporting Life harder, drew a third deep breath, and contracted my stomach muscles hard, letting out a noise that any sheep would be proud of. No reactions. Monday morning grimness, sky still dark as we emerged at the top of the stairs onto Platform 1 at Chelmsford railway station.

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More like a zombie movie than the dystopian nightmare of George Orwell’s ‘1984’. Although his Thought Police would have nabbed me for the aural suggestion that we travelled amid flocks of ruminants.

34.5 years later, my view has not changed. Phones, earphones, laptops and tablets make it easier for commuters to London to create their own hiding space from their fellows, whereas books and newspapers were the shields of choice in 1984. But nobody wanted or wants this gauntlet of misery. Is it really worth losing precious time on the planet by waiting, sitting, eyeing up, jostling, coughing, seething, chewing, sneezing, sipping, watching, leching, breathing shallow and grinding teeth?

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Five days a week, twice a day, weekends off for good behaviour. For Maureen.

Six days in my case. Still at Ladbrokes, but now as a relief manager, covering for holidays and illness. Anywhere in the East End. More often than not at the Hoe Street shop in Walthamstow, which lacked a manager. Or Custom House, Woolwich, Canning Town, Leytonstone, Forest Gate, Plaistow or East Ham. And sometimes just 100 yards from Upton Park, in the big shop on the Barking Road just along from the iconic Anne Boleyn pub.

Back to my East End family roots but so bored that the travel gauntlet remains my strongest memory. I got through the days by thinking obsessively about betting on racehorses. If I had let the commuting, and then the betting shop surroundings take an unfiltered toll, I may have broken down.

Tucked away behind the reinforced shop partitions I sat at my desk and continued logging certain statistics in what became a series of exercise books. Always affable with the punters and cashiers. Then rooting back through as many old copies of the Sporting Life as I could lay my trembling hands on. Always betting small. Every night of the week shuffling through my notebooks, dazzled by the numbers and patterns that I thought I saw.

To say that I buzzed with inner delight may underplay the pleasures. It was the paradigm that had somehow always lain in wait. Where the buck stopped with me, and the brain and guts were engaged in equal measure. My young man’s mind loved the visceral element, where the results panned out at speed and in colour. My conversation at home began to be peppered with references to “when my system has won lots of money”.

I recall almost nothing else of that autumn. The IRA nearly assassinated Maggie Thatcher in October 1984. The spiteful side of me wished they had. Striking miners probably agreed. Only Brexit and Marmite have split Britain like Thatcher.

Also, we became pet owners. Millie, our black and white kitten from a litter in Danbury, would creep into our bed at night and sleep between us. I made up baby rhymes for her, including this gem:

Puddum, o tatum….the little, ittle catum

I know. Keats and Wilde meet John Donne, take laudanum and entertain the angels.

A few giant thunderstorms marked our first months in the maisonette. I would wake terrified at the explosions outside and above, paralysed with the idea that Russia was unleashing a nuclear weapon. A global fear, interrupting my dreams. An arm came around me. Soothing words.

Maureen’s care and competence matched my over-imaginative nature. She knew how to decorate, and what furniture we needed. What food was required; how to keep in regular contact with parents and siblings; and what washing powder and loo roll to buy.

A great organiser. And she kept me lustful.