Our Friends from the North

Our Friends in the North

We met Lynn and Darryl trekking in the Himalayas in 2008. They were and  are great outdoor enthusiasts. On retirement from Special Needs Education in Durham they have spent many months in Rwanda setting up charitable projects. Last week we spent three days at their home in Heighington, county Durham. A village so neat and prosperous that it could be transported to West he Sussex with barely a blush.

But the village has other claims to fame. Not least it is the resting place of one of Nelson’s Heroes William Pryce Cumby(1771-1837). A cadet of the local Jepson-Cumby family who sent generations into the Senior Service he joined the Navy aged 13. At Trafalgar,October 21 1805, he  was  first lieutenant on the Bellerophon (aka Billy Ruffian) which sailed fifth in line in Collingwoods column.

Like all of Nelson’s god fearing officers Cumby knelt  before battle and prayed for” a glorious victory and gracious protection for my dear wife and children “. As the  hungry British fleet crashed through the  Franco-Spanish line ,   Cumby’s ship was soon entangled with the enemy. While its broadsides created total destruction, in the masts of the French Aigle were sharp shooters. And as with Nelson they  took special aim at  officers. Captain Cooke refused take off his epaulettes declaring “It is too late,I will die like  a man”and ordered Cumby to go below to increase the firing rate. On his return Cooke was down and his last words were,”Tell Cumby never to strike(the flag)”. Cumby took over command, pushed on and took the Aigle . In the course of the battle he picked up a French grenade and tossed it overboard. Nelson’s heroes indeed!

He was promoted to captain in 1806, served in the West Indies and North Atlantic and was eventually put out to grass as commander of the royal yacht and superintendent of the Pembroke Dockyards, where he died. With his prize money he bought several farms in the Heighington area and  a major building in the village is Trafalgar House.

Hames The Best

Passing the Angel of the North, heading  into Northumberland we spent a day at Cragside. A creation as one wit put it of the “arms and the man”. The arms manufactured by Lord William Armstrong’s (1810-1900) created the wealth to employ the great  architect Norman Shaw (1831-1912)to build this Wagnerian  folly. Which is complete with a scullery sized fireplace where the great engineer could  sit with his dogs. Above the fireplace was  the Geordie legend seen on so many miner’s  porches, “East or West, Hame’s Best.”

Both men deserve mention. Armstrong  trained as a lawyer and didn’t take up engineering until his late thirties but inventions  and ambition made him an almost archetypal Victorian hero. Hard working, rich, famous, philanthropic. At his peak he  employed 25000 and supplied  armaments and ships for the Crimean, American Civil and Russo-Japanese wars. Originally his firm built cranes,he also built the Newcastle swing  bridge-so ships could get to his gun factory and the mechanism for Tower Bridge.

Cragside is almost the opposite of a  gentle rolling parkland Capability Brown  fantasy. Here gigantic rock gardens, the tallest Douglas  firs ,valley walks and moor land views dominate. This is the border home of a Geordie son of Newcastle. Inside  Armstrong engineered the first electric lights in Britain powered by his home designed hydro scheme.

Norman Shaw  believed in architecture as an art form and everything from Bryanston School(which I know well) , Bromley Town Hall, Albert Hall Mansions to the Norman Shaw buildings in Westminster flowed from his drawing board. So varied and excellent are his designs that he has been called “the Picasso of architecture”. In his time only August Pugin ran him close in importance  and  influence.

Many decry Cragside( see link) saying Shaw designed it in a day and it suffers from too much client interference. It was ever thus, especially, when your client is someone as successful, dynamic and inventive as Armstrong.



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George Rough (1922-2017)

George Rough (1922-2017)

My dear friend George died in his sleep on Friday night. He was always petrified of losing it,a half life in a home, dementia and incapacity. He  got his way. Once again it was “Lucky Roughy”.Ever the practical man he fell ill at the end of June was admitted to hospital and still worrying about his roses,the funeral  paid for,the plot next to his beloved Nellie arranged, as he planned and hoped, he  slipped peacefully away.

He was  one of six born on a  farm in Mitcham ,now very much a London suburb. Aged eight the family sold up and moved to East Putney. Coincidentally  Mexfield Road is where Vivien and I set up our first home 45 years later.

George left school at 14 and worked for a variety of engineering companies. He always maintained if hadn’t been for the War he would have had a successful career in engineering.  A good sportsman, accomplished at both soccer and cricket.But before he could qualify the War came.

In 1940 he was called up and joined the Royal Artillery, Vivien’s father’s regiment. In 1942 he and his then fiancé went to a dance in Putney. Two of his mates had to leave early to get back to their ships at Chatham. A farewell pint in the Spotted Horse. While in the pub a bomber struck and scored a direct hit on the Cinderella Dance Hall, George’s fiancé was  one of the 81 killed. A few months  later he married Nellie one of her friends  whose boy friend had died at Dunkirk.

Soon after he was called away to the Italian campaign. He would not see England again until 1946. By then his daughter Pat was three. George was a driver and had his best friend die in his arms, he missed death narrowly so many times that he was nick named “Lucky Roughy.”  Nevertheless he was  invalided by shrapnel.  When he came home he  and his new family had to live with the in laws. He never forgave Churchill for failing on his promise of “homes for heroes”. He hated Remembrance Sunday as it brought back memories and he couldn’t sleep for days. For six years after the War he sweated badly most nights.

A life long Labour supporter he was anti Royalist and for that matter anti immigrant. He expressed the Leave EU position succinctly when he once said ,”No one talks to any one any more and if they do,its not in English”.

Any way the maintenance engineer  job the Gas Board ended with hospital after a horrific accident which today would have netted him a massive compensation. Then in l967 he got the job as the maintenance manager at Wandsworth Town Hall. This 24/7 post  came with a grace    and favour flat. As a prestige venue many up market weddings and social events were held at the Town Hall and George had many fond memories of hobnobbing with Vera Lynn, Bob Monkhouse, Frankie Vaughan and David Jacobs. Invariably when I arrived at his house he was  either listening to a Glen Miller type big band or watching a 1940s Laurel and Hardy type  comic. He and Nellie loved the big shows and  ballroom dancing, they were a diamond couple.

I once asked George if he had any regrets in life “Yes, I worked too hard”. He was in full time paid work 54 years-I? 37. But  he knew no other way, he was old school, and rightly proud.   A man who not only had a full set of tools but needed a tool shed. He could not understand how I survived with barely a  hammer and a screw driver. Brilliant at his job, the Council insisted he stay on extra years but rewarded him ,on retirement at 68 ,with a two bedroomed house in Putney Vale, where I met him courtesy of Age Concern, five years ago.

His daughter Pat forwent her chance to go to university, instead followed her husband into the RAF. George never approved, the husband died an alcoholic and her life style meant his daughter predeceased him by several decades. Nellie died fifteen years ago. His grand daughter now runs a B&B in France. His nephew Graham was closer than any son, his grand niece Kelly, her partner and boy will inherit the house.

George loved his garden, I’ve never known my roses so bad, was his catch phrase, he was always doing things for his neighbours, until the end was upgrading his house-in the last year he had artificial grass, a wooden floor and a  new  boiler installed. Maybe he was getting it ready.

Two years ago  a long stand  standing  close neighbour Rosemary moved to be replaced by a Thai family. On his birthday the two boys brought round a cake and a card. I said, See George,Not so bad after all. He looked at me and said ,Early days. We both laughed. At the end of May we sat in his garden and had a midday glass to celebrate his 95th.

He was a lovely man,whose life experience was so different from mine we had lots to learn from each other. Every week he visited Nellie’s grave in the nearby cemetery, I asked him  when he talked to her how did he describe me, Hugh,you’re the one who ‘s always asking questions.  I once asked him what he thought of the officers in the War. He talked of the useless ones from the Indian Army who hadn’t a clue. My grandfather was one such officer!

He was grounded in a loving family ,he had a successful marriage, he was dealt some bad life cards but played them really well, he never complained and brought joy to many, he served his country, loved his family and his neighbours, and was a good man. It doesn’t get much better. Earlier this year he typically gave me a rose bush, it has flowered magnificently.  Thank you George.

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Ask Not



Ask Not

Sometimes family life is very rewarding. A middle class street, houses today worth more than £2.5m,it was in such a street we brought  up our children. We moved in l980  before the City juggernaut changed everything, then there was a white collar professional mix-journalists, advertising, design, politics, photography, film editing, fashion, entrepreneurs even teachers unlike today when its is only law or the City.

In 1990 our children were aged around 10 and 8, we had a cocker spaniel, among our neighbours we had friendships  with as many as twenty families. We broke bread and bottles together, I organised street ,Boat Race and Boxing Day soccer parties. There was  soft ball in the summer. It was Walt Disney with alcohol.

One of the clan was NT. He ran a highly successful design company. He had a charming Asian born wife. His  children were gifted and beautiful and won the  street party’s talent show. In that year I  gave his name to a friend who was starting a  high profile, up market management magazine. He got the business, palmed me £500 and took me to my one and only lunch at the Ivy. Star man.

On Friday to test out my dodgy hip I walked the six miles across Richmond Park.I returned by train and there was NT,stylish complete with Panama  in the station foyer. I shocked him with my greeting. He had once moved to India, I knew he had a place in Brighton so I asked where he was living in Putney.

He stuttered and  could hardly get the words out. We all know what this means. He pointed to his wife at the ticket office. His tell tale  grin  and his  charming nod were there but the words were not. His wife explained that he was  suffering an early stage  dementia which meant he couldn’t get words out. Not exactly a conservation starter. Now it was my turn to stutter. Somewhere a bell tolled, a tap dripped, a bat flew.

I kissed the lady, grabbed NT by the shoulder and dared to say I was glad it wasn’t me, wished them well and went on my way. Suddenly my  hip felt like new. Yesterday we remembered the 600,000 who died in the battle at Passchendael in 1917

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Queen Ann Dresser

Queen Anne Dresser


Watching the lacklustre  RSC’s production of  Queen Ann had its moments. The plot revolved around dominating favourite Sarah Duchess of Marlbrough’s  waning influence over the dull Queen. An influence which was essential if her husband the Duke was to have his war paid . Others plotted against and a new favourite was found in Abigail Masham. Here was the start of the two party system ,spearheaded by maids in waiting. All kinds of lesbian(now so popular in UK politics) cards were played, hinted at and used in the royal bedroom capers.

Well if she did swing, she swung both ways. She  and her hubby George of Denmark did try and try again for the Protestant dynasty. (In the wings waited  other Catholic Stuarts)Pregnant seventeen times, five births  and no surviving kids. No IVF for this poor queen, all she could do was pray and she did that  a lot. Guess  what, it made no  difference.

Maybe a bit of play time with her girl friends was well earned.  Royals, dontcha  luv ‘em. Her great grandfather James 1  who was a one for the lads famously said,” If Jesus  could have his John, why cant I have my  George(Duke of Buckingham).”

Anyway as someone who had some professional experience of public relations/management consultancy the play rang some bells. PR and consultants  like jesters make their clients happy, they bring good news, they can almost get instant results, their job is to talk the talk not the harder stuff. The accountant, lawyer,production and hr managers usually only bring bad news ,slow solutions and problems. The waffle boys with their razzle dazzle can often get the client’s  ear. And with that comes power, and with that comes a sense of disproportionate  importance, which can lead  to a forgetting of place. The client is  after all the  boss and although may not have flash pr skills probably has got something,otherwise  why is he/she the client.

So Sarah because she physically dominated Anne felt she  could  treat her mean and keep her keen. But Anne had abilities and  Sarah like all those near the purse strings was in a competitive  business. But like many in the favourite business she forgot the world is a dynamic place,and changes, and over played a dated hand.



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Its a wise child

Its a Wise Child

The full proverb reads “ Its a wise child who knows his own father.” And it came to mind reading Richard Ford’s “Between Them-Remembering My Parents”(Bloomsbury). The highly successful Pulitzer winning author in this slight book poses all kinds of questions about his non descript parents. Did they love him, as an only child who came late did he get in the way, what drove them, what were their feelings to each other,their parents, him- what were their innermost dreams and ambitions. Why had he have so little idea of a couple who he had been intimate with for twenty years and  lived with far longer?

I was brought up by four people all of whom  I have only the vaguest idea about. Why  was Dick Thompson CBE  a highly successful lawyer  so hopeless  domestically, was this the  clue to his first wife, my mother accusing him of being weak and not up to the job? Did he love her till he died? She turned up at his Lincolns Inn memorial,50 years after their divorce .

Was my mother as promiscuous as she hinted in a long essay she wrote of her childhood. Was this the clue to her disjointed  and disappointing career. As an Oxford graduate and Labour candidate in 1945 she promised  more than being a middle ranking civil servant. Was the trauma of her loveless childhood the  main reason. Childhoods cannot be a life time excuse.

My step mother was something out of a novel.  She trained but didn’t  qualify as a doctor, had something a crusading hate for my mother, started several businesses and never really saw them through, all her four children ended up pretty fucked-they are still feuding over her inheritance, had few friends. Yet  she was not a bad person.

My step father a  German Jew, far more German than the other. Chemical engineer building plant around the world,skier, mountaineer, alpha male he. Maybe with reason ,obsessively jealous. Found the mood changes of the 60s impossible. Yet had a high opinion of himself ,he could never pass a mirror without having a peep, he never had any friends, told me once that friendship was a waste of time as it involved saying goodbye and “talking rubbish”. Ouch.

And  we haven’t  got to the sperm donor. One or two night stand with my mother,more?-typically they remained friends all their lives. Charismatic certainly. Mainstay of Czech-Canadian community absolutely, successful career-yes. Yet his denial  maybe suggests  an unwritten proverb “Its a brave eighty year old who admits paternity fifty years later.” Loud he may have been but  brave he was not, of this, at least, I am certain.

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Silly Girl Silly Season

Silly Girl, Silly Season


With so much politics around I was fearing that the silly season when the media gets dominated  by David Beckham changes hairdresser type stories, was never going to come. But come it has ,with a rash, a manure    cloud, an epidemic of Princess Diana stories. It is twenty years since dear Jesus in his wisdom claimed this saint for more important work.

Here was the beautiful  girl who was dragged screaming into  Westminster Abbey to marry a self proclaimed Royal fruit cake, which started a twenty year  full on two way mutually satisfying romance with the world’s media. In no particular order she contracted every   eating disorder going, danced with the stars, had children, found her fruit cake  of her husband was having an affair, did likewise with a not so gallant army officer who ended  on Augustup trying  to sell the letters, having seen the film she then had a thing with the royal Bodyguard. Got a divorce, went full on with  a Pakistani born heart surgeon who after he said no started to stalk him and  text him while he was in the operating theatre. Apparently she was so keen on Dr Khan that she actually read both Grays Anatomy and the Koran so they could be closer. It is not reported whether they were the only books she ever read.

Of course she used her  fame to publicise the perils of land mines and the inhumanity  shown to Aids victims. But then to show life is not all charity work and being the best  single mum in the world she has an affair with Didi Fayed. A man with yachts, cars, a rich daddy and one thought-if that. Any one who saw  the statue Mohammed Fayed out up in Harrods realised how tatty and sad that relationship was.

So when I hear the much married brother of Diana reprising and exploiting  again his funeral eulogy which centred on family values, when I hear the royal brothers  exposing the feminine and the fruit cake side of their heritage, I know that more silly season stories are  on their way. Soon giant the jelly fish  will be seen in Morecombe Bay , live  prawns will be found in a paella, Boris Johnson will comb his hair, Corbyn wont leave a tip,there will be traffic  chaos outside Dover and   football clubs will be selling their shirts for rip off prices. And no doubt it will rain on August Bank Holiday.

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Don’t Talk About Brexit

Dont Talk About Brexit

This week’s blockbuster movie “Dunkirk” was not released accidentally. The heroic  story of how British pluck, ingenuity and character overcame nasty Germans and their allies and friends the Rumanians, Hungarians, Italians, Spanish and Portuguese etc is being shown as the Brexit negotiations get underway. How we left  Europe and saved the world  will of course be the Brexit story and so Dunkirk has been released to remind that even without Richard Todd, Kenneth Moore and  Jack Hawkins we  can   still do it.

But other films need to be  released to remind us of the Brexit spirit.

The Great Escape. Here plucky British politicians successfully, against all the odds, plot how to free themselves from the prison camp of Europe.

Bridge on the River Kwai- Gutsy British pensioners living on the Costa Brava show discipline and composure while Eurocrats try and make their life hell.

Schindlers List. While many Europeans starve and worse,brave  British businessmen take in the poor and the hungry.

Dam Busters. Here while struggling to come to terms with life after Brexit,the UK  scores a massive victory against German industry.( see link-The True Story That Thrilled The World)

DDay. Brexit  having proven to be     great success we launch an invasion of the EU which frees others from the jackboot of Junker and the riding crop of Tusk.

Das Boot. Here  we recognise that there  are good Germans who fight honourably  for their country but unfortunately are  on the wrong  and losing side.

Downfall. Five years on as Britain flourishes and the EU drowns under refugees, bust banks, failed states, red tape and corruption we observe the last days in the Brussels bunker.

(Dambuster trailer,a period classic, worth looking at in its own right if only for the non pc name of the dog)


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