I’m riding for charidee!

A couple of years ago I was going into a large store and was hailed by a chap standing behind a table in the lobby. 

Imagining him to be selling double glazing or something I muttered something dismissive and marched on. A few second later my forebrain processed the image my eyes had delivered and I realised he was raising money for the Essex and Herts Air Ambulance. I turned back to apologise and make a donation and ten minutes of conversation later I was a regular sponsor. I’m a bit of a fan of Air Ambulances anyway, having seen the Thames Valley team in action after a road accident in Bucks some years previously

Fast forward to last month and in one of their regular  emails they told me about a cycling event they’re running out near Colchester in April. Well I’m always looking for new routes on the bike so I thought I’d have a go. I’m signed up for the 80 mile (128km) route which is on the long side for me but I think it’s doable.

The 80 mile route

It starts and finishes just outside Wakes Colne up near Colchester. The height profile doesn’t look TOO awful and as long as I just keep spinning away I reckon I should be able to knock it off in 5, maybe 5 and a half hours in the saddle. a bit longer with rests.

It’s not the only longish organised ride I’m signed up for this year –I’m currently registered for at least four more, including one if February which will be a struggle if if the weather doesn’t im prove and let me get some miles into my legs, but the only one where I feel mildly obliged to solicit donations.

If you feel like it


Happy New Year, everyone

Just watching the BBC News Channel. They’re previewing the midnight fireworks from Embankment in London.

Took me back to the night I was on that job.

I *think* it would have been NYE 2000 into 2001 <*> but I’m not 100% certain. Not really important. The Millennium Wheel was in place, though.

We set up on Embankment overlooking the Wheel: me (on camera) an engineer in the truck, a producer and a correspondent from News 24, as it was still called back then.

We did an insert into the 8 o’clock sequence, and of course as soon as the lights went on we became a magnet for every drunken idiot in a quarter mile radius. They capered behind the reporter; they shouted (slurred) insults and rude suggestions and one came right up and gurned into my lens. I actually reached round and hauled him out of the shot by his collar, which was probably not wise but I got away with it.

After we came off air and got rid of the morons we got a phone call from the correspondent who was due to do the Network news at 10. “Get that sorted out or I’m not coming”

We moved position slightly to get the correspondent into a defensible right angle in the parapet and chatted up a couple of cops who agreed to pass by at the top of the hours. The 9, 10 (with the Network reporter) and 11 went off without any further trouble and we came to midnight.

Quite a long piece, and as we were doing it I noticed a few blokes hanging around just out of shot. They were quite clearly as pissed as newts, glazed eyes and swaying slightly but not actually making any trouble. They waited until the lights went off then stumbled across and gave each and everyone of us a hug and a handshake and wished us, in thick Slavic accents, a very happy New Year. Then they happily weaved off into the distance, presumably to spread good cheer to anyone else they could find.

And that, I realised with some regret, was the difference between the pissed Englishman and the pissed Slav.

Happy New Year, everyone

<*> PS, do you want my tired rant on when the 20th Century *actually* ended? Thought not 

What has the EU ever done for us?

One warm sunny morning in August some considerable time ago, I woke up in a strange place. It was a chalet style ski lodge, built, I was told, for a long passed winter Olympics.

Standing on the grass outside the door I looked out at a beautiful, steep sided, densely wooded valley, dotted with small villages and towns. I swear that even now I can smell the freshness in the air.
A bus came and took us all off for a day’s filming.

In the early afternoon, the bus stopped at what might have once been a farm; maybe cattle, maybe chickens. There were two long, low sheds.

But the sheds no longer housed cows or hens. They housed men and boys–some no older than 13 or 14. They sat and lay in long rows, no more than three feet apart. Thin, dirty, resigned. Our tour guides stood around glaring at us, fingering their Kalashnikovs.
It was called Manjača, and it was one of several internment camps operating in Bosnia in 1992 as a consequence of the Yugoslavian wars.

I was there because Paddy Ashdown and Russell Johnston had bullied the Serbs into letting us in.

i found it a sobering experience, not least because I really couldn’t see what separated the guards from the prisoners apart from a national label

This happened only 25 years ago, only a three hour flight from Heathrow or Gatwick. In our own backyard near enough. It’s what can happen when you divide the world into Them and Us. When you let yourself give in to unthinking nationalism and the fear of the Other.

Eventually of course the wars stopped and the various parties sat down and *talked* and now two of the former Yugoslavian republics are members of the EU and more are on track to join and it *won’t happen again*

The EU is where you talk first. But its more than just avoiding conflict. It’s where you actively co-operate with the others to make things better for all of you. It’s about NOT turning inwards and creating squabbling fortress nations but welcoming new ideas even new ideologies if you want. It’s about being part of something bigger and more varied.

So when you go and vote later (you are going to vote later, aren’t you?) please do vote Remain for a more peaceful and more prosperous Europe.

(By the way, there’s a better written and better recalled story of that trip to Bosnia in Paddy Ashdown’s autobiography, *A Fortunate Life.* It’s not a bad read if you ignore Paddy’s slightly pompous style)

A quick taster

So you probably know  we got married.
Karen and me. We got married.  Friday 20th.  It was great. We had a seriously good time–so good I’m still reeling  and trying to bring it all into focus to write something about it.

But while I do, here is something I prepared earlier. It’s the short speech I gave before the Best Man’s speech. I’m not sure that this was fully in compliance with the traditional order of events, but I really don’t care.  There was stuff I wanted to say, and say it to all the friends and family.

This is my script. It was NOT delivered exactly as written. I kind of surfed the euphoria a bit and ad-libbed a few times.  “Check against delivery,” as it used to say on the advance copies of political speeches I occasionally saw in my previous life.

Seemed to go down reasonably well.  It got a few laughs anyway.  For those who did see it live, thank you for being so appreciative.

Well, it’s been a while coming, hasn’t it?

I mean, not many people wait until their 60s to dip their toe into matrimony for the first time.. Usually once you get into middle age, you’re a bit set in your ways, but this seems like the right thing to do now.

From another point of view it’s been twelve years. Twelve years since Karen and I decided we’d been typing at each other on social media long enough and went to see Buster Keaton in a silent film called The Cameraman. It was great fun to see him inventing all the slapstick stunts with the tripod that we were still doing 100 years later. And afterwards we decided maybe we should do something one day again soon. So we did, and 12 years later we still haven’t stopped talking.

But maybe the real wait has been six years.

Let me take you back to March 2012. Karen had joined me at the BBC at a retirement party for a fellow cameraman.  As usual, a whole bunch of old hands showed up and I found myself in conversation with quite a few of them. Most of them seemed to think I was likely to be the next departure, and on the whole they were encouraging me to take the plunge as soon as I could. And so so, they reckoned, should Karen.

Well, we chatted about it and started thinking out loud about what retirement would mean and then she said something along the lines of, “That would be a good time to “sort out the paperwork”.

“Sort out the paperwork” was our euphemism of choice for the “upgrade” of Karen and Derek’s long standing separation to a full divorce.

Hmm. I said. “Well, if you did do that, I’d be happy to do the next bit of paperwork”

There was a pause. She looked at me, looked at the glass of BBC red wine I was holding, which was definitely not my first of the evening, looked back at me and said “Does that mean what I think it means?”

“Er…yes. I suppose it does,”

There may have been less romantic proposals, but maybe not by much, and I couldn’t let it end there. So a little while later, when were leaving the party I did, in fact, get down on one knee and proposed properly, just so it was official.

And for the avoidance of doubt, I said it AGAIN once I’d sobered up the following morning.

And here we are.

Before I hand over to Steve for the ritual character assassination I do just want to say a few words of thanks.

When I started seeing Karen I was a bit nervous about meeting her extended family. I needn’t have been. Without exception, everyone on her side has been welcoming to the newcomer. Particularly, I want to thank Chris, Tom and Clare who took to to “mum’s new bloke” without so much as blinking an eye and made me feel like one of the family.

Thanks also to the staff here at the hotel for arranging all this for us.

And finally thank you to all of you for coming. Some of you have come some distance to join us today and I can’t tell you how much we appreciate that. We hope you’ve had, and will continue to have, a good time.

And now it’s Steve’s turn, but first

At this point I muttered something about traditionally giving the Best Man a present but thinking that he’d appreciate this rather than a set of cuff links or something and handed him a bottle of decent (as recommended by the local Majestic Wine Warehouse) Pino Grigio (As recommended by a mutual friend)
I ran the first draft past Karen and she made a few suggestions, which I incorporated and reminded me of the following .  I’m including it for completeness.

We actually first became acquainted online in the late 90s: the earliest post from “Roy Gillett” on UKCA I can find quickly in my archive is from 2000, and even then we were disagreeing *very politely* on the existence of God 😀

In 2004 we nearly met, but Brendan [Brendan Stallard, an old online mate of ours]  couldn’t find a slot in the schedule so it fell through. I can’t find the one where we all met up in the Black Friar but it must have been shortly after that.

In 2005 you were helping me with getting a facsimile signature into my E mail sign-off, and I was helping you with family research on the Censuses.

At the end of the year, or early in 2006, the famous “Life on Mars” thread started – and you, as an old UMIST student, queried the credibility of the price of a ticket to Old Trafford as portrayed on the screen. I aced the game by being able to produce an actual stand ticket from Easter 1980, priced at £1.40. It’s fair to say I have a certain reputation for record-keeping.

After that the conversation sort of carried on and deviated into other matters – culminating in me saying I was going to The Cameraman, and you offering to meet up for a drink between work and then….(see above)

Steve’s speech, since you ask, was pretty damn good.  I was only very slightly embarrassed and Karen didn’t recoil in horror once. Well, in twelve years she’d heard most of the anecdotes already,

I want to write a bit more about the planning and build up and the event itself but it’s going to take a while and I need to wait on the photos from the official photographer.

Thank you for reading.

PS I should probably mention that the headline picture is an early preview of the set from the official snapper–an old BBC mate, Jon Daly Photography. An the embedded speechifying picture is courtesy of Louise Nicholson, probably my oldest friend there.


Well, that’s disagreeable.

I spend a fair amount of time at Karen’s place in Essex these days, but I do like to get back to my house in Acton on a regular basis. Mow the lawn, collect the post, check that it hasn’t developed a case of the squatters, that kind of thing.

Sometimes I like to combine it with a bike ride. Over the last few years, Transport for London have been developing a mostly segregated East/West cycle superhighway. Ultimately it’s supposed to run from Barking in East London, all the way to, believe it or not, Acton. It’s going to use a lane of the A40 Westway for the western end, which I imagine will cause howls of protest. But that’s for the future.

The part I like to use runs from the Tower of London, down though Blackfriars, along Embankment, through Parliament Square and then into the Royal Parks. There’s some confusion about the exact route around Buck House, but it spits you out onto the Bayswater Road soon enough and it’s not too hard to pedal home from there.

The Superhighway

So yesterday I loaded the bike onto the train at Rochford heading for Liverpool Street. Off the train I threaded my way down through the City, past the Old Bailey (no big trials on at the moment I noticed) and joined the Superhighway at Blackfriars. I was soon back in  the west, feeling pleasantly exercised.  Had lunch, sorted the mail, did a couple of chores, and started the return quite early. (I had to get a train before 16:30 to be allowed to take the bike)

Along Western Avenue, down Old Oak Road, turn into the Uxbridge Road, heading for Shepherds Bush and…

…all of a sudden I  I was sitting in an ambulance. My left shoulder was very sore and a paramedic was shining a torch in my eyes. A cop was standing by the back door taking notes.

Not good.

For a short, confusing and rather worrying period I couldn’t even figure out where I was. Even when I grasped it was the Uxbridge Road I couldn’t remember WHY I’d made the trip over.

It all came back to me soon enough, right up to the turn onto the Uxbridge Road. The actual incident, though, whatever it might have been,  is still a complete blank.

To answer the two obvious questions, yes I’d hit my head, and yes I was wearing a helmet. I always do. You can see what is a surprisingly small dent on the left at the back. (Small dent or not, the lid is a write off. Not that I’ll need one for a while, but we’ll get to that)

According to the cop, I’d had some kind of entanglement with a BMW. (He said his oppo was interviewing the driver) The paramedic reckoned that the Beemer had done a U turn and…

Well, it’s not clear if it actually hit me. The bike (according to the paramedic) shows no sign of an impact and I have no injuries I can detect on my right side, which is where it would have hit. I can only speculate that I saw a situation developing and took evasive action that pitched me off. Maybe I’ll find out in due course.
They took me and the bike  to Charing Cross Hospital, which, confusingly, is halfway between Hammersmith and Fulham. They handed me over and left, but not before taking the trouble to secure the bike. I appreciated that

First order of business, a CT scan of my head. Retrograde amnesia raises all kinds of cerebral red flags. Then an X ray of my left shoulder and a surprisingly short wait. By which I mean only about 90 minutes.

(I actually found this reassuring. I figured that if the CT scan had shown anything alarming they’d have been all over me in a hurry.)

So around 7:00 I got called to see a doctor. He reassured me that there was nothing to worry about on the head scan. (Also, no headache, no blurred vision, no obvious bruising, etc, etc) but in the light of the mild amnesia he did have some advice. Viz: no alcohol for two weeks.

And I have a fractured collarbone. He showed me the X ray.  I’ve been fitted with a “collar and cuff” which is not nearly as elaborate as it sounds. It’s a long strip of soft foam with a loop at each end. It goes round my neck and the forearm goes in the loops.  Sorted.

Here are some painkillers, here’s a letter for your GP (not clear if it’s my copy or if I have to deliver it) see you in the fracture clinic. Goodnight.

I had a think, reclaimed just one wheel from the bike to immobilise it and hailed a cab for Liverpool Street. Didn’t feel like facing the Tube.

Fractured collarbones don’t seem to be all that serious. In fact, unless there are obvious complications they’re dealt with by…putting the arm in a sling for six weeks. It seems the fracture clinic (April 11th) will be more of a follow up than a primary treatment.  I don’t suppose I’ll be doing much cycling for a while. Plenty of time to get a new helmet.

I’ll find out more at the fracture clinic. In the meantime I also have some sore muscles around the ribcage and a bruise on my left thigh where my wallet dug in.

Sleeping is a bit of an issue, Apparently I should try to stay upright to let gravity keep the cut ends aligned. I suppose I’ll get the hang of it.

Oh, and my phone’s gone funny.  It must have got a whack, because although it mostly works as a pocket computer, it no longer functions as a phone. There’s no cell service, That may be fixable. I’ll take it to Bodgers R Us sometime soon.

And that was my day. Thank you for your attention.


The long hard life of Elizabeth Philips

About twenty five years ago–long before Who Do You Think You Are– I started looking into my family history, just out of curiosity.

Back then, there was no internet, no Ancestry, no electronic indices and the search procedure was rather tedious so it took me quite a while to track down very much at all.

Over the years, though, I built up a patchy but reasonably accurate (I hope) picture of my ascending family tree.

Mostly it’s fairly mundane. The Gilletts and the Clares (my mother’s family)  were mostly “ag labs”–agricultural labourers–in the nineteenth century and even when they migrated to the towns and cities in the late nineteenth and early Twentieth centuries they remained mostly unskilled.

I was, though, oddly fascinated by one particular ancestor and her life.  It took a while to put it together. In fact, I ground to a halt on a bit of a problem and stopped looking for quite some time until about ten years ago  I got to talking to Karen about it and she managed to break the logjam.

But this isn’t the story of how we unearthed it; this the the story we unearthed.

Her name was Elizabeth Philips and she is one of my Great Great Great Grandmothers.

Elizabeth Philips was born to Anne (born Trehearne) and William Philips in Upton on Severn in Worcestershire in 1804, they having married in August the previous year. She was baptised there on the 22nd of July and that’s really all I know about that. There’s some information regarding William and Anne in later life, including a couple more children (Hannah, 1806 and Joseph, 1815) but little else.

Elizabeth didn’t trouble any other official records that I know of until 1835 when she had her second child, Ann, baptised at Saint Martin’s in the city of Worcester.  I have no way at the moment of knowing how she came to leave Upton on Severn to the city.  I know Ann was at least her second child because she  also recorded an older brother, James, in the census of 1841 but I haven’t turned up evidence of his birth or baptism–which would have been sometime around 1829 or 1830. She didn’t mention a father for Ann and it wasn’t until the 11th of December 1838 that she married. Her husband was Edwin Gillett, a plumber and glazier originally from farming stock in Gloucestershire–perhaps tenant farmers, perhaps ag-labs; I haven’t been able to find out.

Was Edwin Ann’s father? I have no idea. He might have been, but there’s no evidence of it. He would have been eighteen or so at the time. He was born to a Charles and Mary Gillett,  in a small Gloucestershire village called Temple Guiting in 1813.

Edwin and Elizabeth did definitely have one child, John, born in October 1839, but he only lived for six months before being carried off by Tuberculosis in the spring of 1840. Edwin, sadly, had gone before, also succumbing to TB in December of 1839.

And so in the first national census, taken in April of 1841, we find Elizabeth, James and Ann living in Water Course Alley in central Worcester.  It seems likely that it was a bit of a slum. My first thought was that, from the name, it was canalside, but  a more or less contemporary map shows   houses on the alley marked as “City Ditch (site of)” Presumably the ditch was built over. . Water Course alley isn’t there  any more of course. It’s now a municipal car park between Queen Street (which does survive, at least in name, from 1841) and the A34, constructed on the course of Silver Street.Watercourse

It must have been a hard life for Elizabeth, what we’d now call a lone parent, faced with bringing up two children once Edwin died. Ann was quite young, only about 6 and James was 12. He was in fact working, as a “twine spinner” which is part of the process of ropemaking but at the age of 12 he couldn’t have been getting paid very much.

Elizabeth  was a “gloveress” which is interesting in itself. According to Amanda Wilkinson, a historian specialising in 19th century female work, in Worcester it was very often a cover for prostitution.


Glove making was skilled and delicate work, but appallingly badly paid and so many gloveresses supplemented their income on the streets. I can’t help wondering if that’s how Elizabeth found herself with two fatherless children by the age of 30.

Incidentally, fans of Terry Pratchett may be noting the similarity to the profession of “seamstress” in Ankh-Morpork. I’m sure it’s not an accident. Sir Terry was very well versed in social history and must have been aware of the realities facing single women in poverty.

She wasn’t single for all that long. In early 1843 she married one Henry Lewis, a widower and (according to the census) neighbour in Water Course Alley. Henry was a cordwainer, or shoemaker, also a highly skilled trade.  Henry and Elizabeth then fade from official records for ten years.  I’ve never managed to find them in the census for 1851 but in 1853 Henry died at the age of 39 (He was probably born  in 1813 although there’s no definite  record I can find) The cause of death was recorded as a “fit of apoplexy brought on by intoxication,” which is alarming,  His place of death was a street called Lowesmoor, only a short distance from Watercourse Alley. Elizabeth, James and Ann were on their own again.

Until  May 1855,  when Ann had a child of her own. And here it gets just a little murky. Ann’s child was registered as William Gillett CRANNAGE. She gave the little boy “Gillett “ as a given name after her mother’s first husband. Does that suggest that Edwin was  in fact her natural father?

William’s father was named as a William Crannage, a “stoker at the gas works” but nowhere is there any record of a marriage between them. Six years later in the census of 1861 young William was living with his mother,  grandmother and uncle James all under the name of Lewis in Pheasant St, again, very near Watercourse Alley. Of William Crannage there is no sign.  There are a handful of candidates appearing in various census records but none  I can definitely pin down as the father,  the Elizabeth was working then as a laundress–possibly a little too old to carry on as a “gloveress”–as was Ann, and James had become a boatman.

In 1862, at the end of August, Ann (as Ann Gillett) married a Seria Gunnell and then with somewhat indecent haste, had a child in early 1863. Make of that what you will. It seems she left Elizabeth’s home but didn’t take William with her, as the 1871 census shows just Elizabeth and William living together: Elizabeth as Elizabeth Lewis, widow and laundress,  and William as William C. Gillett, a labourer.  There is no mention of James; I’ve never found any definite trace of him since. Ann, meanwhile had given Seria three more children.

Elizabeth was quite old by then  and at some point in the next six years she went into the workhouse where she died of “senile decay”–effectively old age–on the 2nd of May 1877. She would have been 73, not a bad age for a working class woman in Victorian England I think. I’d really like one day to have a sight of whatever records of the workhouse survive.

William Gillett/Crannage/Lewis–take your pick; he did–married a local girl, Jane Stevens, in 1878 and had eleven children, one of whom, William Alfred,  was my grandfather. The eldest child was a girl, whom they named Elizabeth Ann. I find it interesting that William honoured his grandmother first.

There is one odd fact. William married Jane under the name of Crannage, that was what was originally on the marriage certificate and in the register,  but all the children were registered as Gilletts and in 1921 their marriage certificate was formally amended to show that the then William Gillett was the William Crannage who had married 43 years previously. Karen has suggested that this was to validate an entitlement to a pension that was going to kick in at the age of seventy.

It leaves me wondering, though. It seems that by strict linear paternity, I’m not really a Gillett at all, but possibly a Crannage. There’s no guarantee that Edwin was even my genetic three-greats grandfather through Elizabeth. Who, in fact, do I think I am?

But this isn’t my story. It’s the long and hard life of Elizabeth Philips. She had three children by at least two different fathers, both of whom she outlived,  and brought up an abandoned grandchild as her own. She was a survivor and in a curious  way, I’m kind of proud of her.


12,701 days: The first four years

On the 29th October 1979 a ), nervous, young (ish)chap presented himself at Centre House, just opposite Television Centre for his first day at work.

He, well, I, joined five others all making their debut at the BBC. We were a bunch of so called Direct Entry engineers, plucked from university, poly or other college with a built in knowledge of electronics who were to be given a couple of crash courses in television to make up for a sudden rush to the exits by engineers seduced by the glamour (and just maybe the  pay) of Independent Television.

Once we’d done our three week orientation–being whipped dizzyingly round all departments from studios to transmission–we  were dispatched to work “on station” and that’s where I had a stroke of fortune that led to my future career.

I was sent to the Central Technical Area for Television News: SCAR. It stands for Spur Central Apparatus Room; the BBC loves acronyms. (Incidentally,  when the whole shebang was forcibly transplanted to New Broadcasting House,  AKA the Temple of Doom, the equivalent technical hub was officially named “CTA 2;” but up to a couple of weeks ago at least, the engineers there would still pick up the phone and cheerfully announce, “Hello: SCAR.” I found that rather comforting)

At the time the BBC was in the middle of experimenting with those new-fangled electronic cameras.  There were a handful of camera-recorder kits around and some of the grizzled old film crews were having a go with them. On top of that, News had built a transmitter truck–a  Range Rover with a four foot microwave dish on the roof to send pictures back either replayed off tape, or occasionally live.  Given that the only other mobile live source in those days  was the News Outside Broadcast Unit: a rather  unwieldy operation with two hefty studio cameras, this was potentially  revolutionary.

I think the original plan was for the camera crews to travel in and operate  the Range Rover and send as well as record material but plans never survive contact with reality and eventually the system we still see today evolved. Crews shot material and delivered it (or it was delivered by bike) to the links vehicle which was operated by a couple of links trained engineers.

The receiving equipment for this was controlled by the staff in SCAR so we found ourselves working quite closely with the teams that operated the Range Rover and when an entirely new department was set up in about 1981 to crew it and provide other engineering support to the ENG crews, SCAR engineers found themselves in pole position to apply for those jobs.

I didn’t get one.

I was far too new and inexperienced, even though I’d done a little filling in while some of the staff were away for the Falklands war. But in 1982 I got a second go when there was a major expansion of the unit–from 10 to 15 I think– to service the coming  new Breakfast News programme. This time I got in, effective 1st January 1983, just in time for the first transmission.
It was a good job. We operated the Range Rover (and other, newer vehicles when they arrived) hung around with crews if we could get close enough to the story and we travelled around the UK and occasionally abroad to set up and operate feed facilities where this new ENG stuff hadn’t yet arrived. I found myself working in Manchester, Sheffield, Glasgow,  Nottingham and for one job down in Cornwall–connected to the loss of the Penlee lifeboat we set up at  Goonhilly Down because it had decent connection to the rest of the country.

I did a couple of trips to Belfast as well. The tensions had eased a bit in Northern Ireland by this time but there was still the occasional flare up. I remember driving into Derry early one morning after a riot looking for the crew that had been out in it all night and the first thing I saw as I entered the city was a copper standing by an armoured Land River carrying a sub-machine gun. Not something a sheltered London lad was used to.

One other trip from that time that particularly  sticks in the mind was to Tripoli in Libya sometime in 1984. I think the Libyan government had  invited the press in for the celebration of the fifthteenth anniversary of the revolution.  I suspect the BBC weren’t particularly interested in that but it was an excuse to get Kate Adie and a crew (Peter Matthews and Roy Benford) into the country to see what they could see.  I spent most of my time shuttling between the hotel (Al Khabir–the Grand, which it wasn’t) and the TV station where I would attempt to feed the stories back.  It mostly worked out well enough and I was spared the majority of the official (and apparently compulsory) press functions.

It was an interesting trip but I wasn’t sorry to come home after ten days.

In amongst all this flitting about I’d started doing the odd day as a relief sound recordist, getting to grips with microphones and the heavy and unwieldy U-Matic  field recorder, the Sony BVU-50. Sony had tried to keep the weight down by stripping out everything not directly concerned with recording pictures. It couldn’t, for example, replay–not without an extra piece of kit. As I recall there weren’t many  controls: on/off, record,  (although generally that was under the control of the cameraman) tape eject and a couple of tiny audio level controls.  If you wanted more facilities there was a bigger, heavier record/replay unit, the BVU-110 but no one wanted to lug that thing about routinely. Sometimes someone had to if there was a shortage of kit. And given that the acting relief sound recordist was at the bottom of the heap, it was often me.

I quite enjoyed it. It brought me closer to the stories than feeding tapes and I was beginning to think that was where I wanted to be.


From the memory archives.

This story is one I’ve told many times in person,  so if you think you’ve heard it before you can go and have a beer or something while I get it off my chest.

I was reminded of it when Andrew Steele, my former boss (well, my former-boss’s boss’s boss but who’s counting?) told it as part of his valedictory address at the combined summer barbecue and retirement party they held at BBC Park Western on Thursday night. This is the full, true (as far as I can remember) and unexpurgated reality.

It would have been March or April 1990. I’d been a cameraman, a fully fledged, post holding cameraman, for rather less than a year, so I was still pretty much the new kid on the block.  There had been torrential rain and flooding in parts of North Wales and one town, Towyn near Llandudno in Conwy, was apparently particularly badly hit. I was sent up there to cover it. For reasons I don’t actually remember I didn’t have Denis Howard my usual sound recordist (sound recordists, those were the days, eh?) for this. I was temporarily partnered with someone who shall remain nameless –he’d been a sound man for a few years having started a little while after me.

We drove up to Towyn and the next day filmed around and about for a while. Towards the end of the afternoon we realised it was approaching high tide and went out to an area where the sea had come over the defences and was inundating the railway lines. I got some nice pictures of all that and we headed back to the car to take the cassette to the link truck a couple of miles away.

That was when we found it had all gone a bit wrong.  We’d driven up the main road with no trouble but–well remember I said it was approaching high tide?  The sea had come in and flooded the road both  in front of and behind the car. We’d parked on a bit of a high spot so the car was more or less dry but there was no way we could drive through the new lakes on either side of us. We didn’t even have a clear idea of how deep the water was.   We were trapped.

I called the producer at the truck and explained and we settled down to wait.  After a while the BBC Breakfast crew came past. They’d had the foresight to fly up to Liverpool and hire a Range Rover so they were still mobile. They took the pictures off us (“Nice pictures,” someone said later)  and we waited a bit more.

It was getting dark when I decided I could see the waters receding. I don’t think they were; I suspect I saw what I wanted to see but that’s hindsight for you. I told the sound recordist it was shallow enough to  try driving out. He started the car and we edged cautiously into the pool.

We got about twenty yards before the engine sucked up a lungful  of water and died. I shouldn’t have been surprised; the water was about level with the doorsill at that point. We tried starting the car but (obviously) it wouldn’t and that flattened the battery. Now we were even more stuck.

Ages later, or it may only have been half an hour, a fire engine came past and the crew, bless ’em, stopped to see if they could help. They tried jump starting the car but even the huge battery in the truck couldn’t get us going. (Of course it couldn’t. The cylinders were full of water. ) Eventually they towed us out of the flood to a safe bit of dry land near the links truck. We grabbed our camera gear, locked up and walked the rest of the way. I think we cadged a lift back to the hotel with the the second news crew. The next day I saw the car on the back of a low loader being taken home.

One of the nice things about the old job was the cameraderie. After a wet, miserable day like that you get together with your colleagues and have a drink and chat and cheer each other up. I tried to buy a round for the four of us  in the bar and couldn’t find my wallet. Panic. Where the hell had it got to?

I figured it out eventually. When the fire brigade had dragged the car out of the flood I’d dug out my wallet to give them a tenner (“…for the widows and orphans fund” as Andrew said in his speech.) I was wearing waterproof overtrousers at the time and must have put it back through the pocket slit but not into the actual trouser pocket below. The wallet was probably halfway to Ireland by this time.

It took a while to live all this down–in fact I’m not sure I ever did. Even as recently as last year people were still making jokes about not sending me to cover flooding.

One of the reasons I couldn’t live it down was because the other cameraman on that job made it his business to spread the story about and  keep it alive. Fate saw that he suffered for it though.

About six months later we were, again, both on the same story– a miner’s rally and conference near Durham. I was working for Newsnight; he was again on news.  He was covering a march and at some point his sound recordist, a really nice bloke on attachment from TV studio sound, dropped the car keys. That would have been awkward but survivable given that they had a set each. The problem was that  the keys had the registration number on the tag. Someone–probably a miner–found them, located the car and in what we surmised was retaliation for the BBC’s perceived bias in reporting the miners’ strike some years earlier, drove it into a field and set fire to it.

Total write off, along with a fair bit of expensive TV gear. Not the camera, that was in use, but quite a lot of other stuff. The blackened skeleton of the steering wheel was on display behind the assignments desk for years.

So now I could point out, every time my fraternal colleague had a few beers and began the story of how I drowned a car, at least when they’re wet, they’re that much harder to burn.




The final party.

One of the things I’ve enjoyed about the last few weeks is that I never seem to have been far from some sort of  party. I was bought lunch (a very up market burger) on my last operational day; we all went down the pub on my birthday; I had a barbecue in my garden a few days later and on Thursday just gone I was invited as a retiree guest of honour to what is becoming the annual summer party at the BBC News operational base in Park Royal.  They get caterers in to do the barbecue properly,  lay on some beer and wine (and soft drinks, don’t forget the soft drinks)  and just relax for an evening.  They chose the date in the hope that it would be a quiet spot between big stories–after the World Cup and Commonwealth Games but before the Scottish referendum and the party conference season.  This year they got Bob Prabhu to issue a general invitation through his retired staff newsletter.

It was already going when Karen and I turned up. Plenty of people eating and drinking and just about the first person I bumped into was  an old picture editing hand who got the evening off in the right spirit with an anecdote about the old days. Apparently he showed up to edit on a job I was doing and I promptly forced the camera on him because I needed the loo.  I’ll have to take his word on that because I don’t remember it at all. All I can say is that I knew he’d cope because we’d done the basic ENG course together thirty years ago.

Then I was accosted by a someone I knew by sight but had not ever had an occasion to speak to–Andrew Steele, a senior manager in Operations. He’d actually been my manager about three levels removed for the last  year or two but somehow our paths hadn’t crossed.  he said he wanted to introduce himself because in an hours time he was going to severely embarrass me and I should at least know who he was.

That was nice.

We had a burger; we drank beer (They got in some good stuff. London Pride and Marston’s Ped for a couple although unusually I ended up drinking San Miguel, mostly because it was kept cold) and soon  Andrew called the meeting to order.

After a few words about the trials and tribulations and successes of a stupidly busy summer he took us back to 1979. Margaret Thatcher and so forth and how, on the 29th October, a young man called Roy Gillett started with the BBC and I held my breath

It was mercifully brief. He didn’t give a full rundown of my time, just mentioned that I was one of only a few who’d come through engineering to the camera unit (actually he reckoned I was unique in that respect but I don’t think so) and only told one embarrassing anecdote: a tale from 1990 about how I drowned a camera car in Wales, losing my wallet in the process.  You can read my version–the true version– of that incident here.

Then he gave me a leaving  gift . Another present! I thought the assignments desk had taken care of the leaving present but here was another one.  I scrabbled to unwrap it as Andrew segued from my departure to saying goodbye to Andrew Latham, who’d been running Operations for many years and was also leaving.  I got the parcel open and…

OK, I wasn’t quite as stunned as I was when I got the paintings from Karen (here and here) but it was quite a shock.

Some history. When I left Manchester  (UMIST)in 1979, a bunch of friends got together and got me a leather beer tankard with the UNIST Socials logo on it. I still have it. I never actually drink out of it; I suspect it would be unwise after thirty five years. At the very least it would need to be re-conditioned (soaked in beer for a couple of days) but I keep it on display in the living room.  Steve Hughes, who was part of that team,  had the idea to do it again, for the sake of symmetry. He conspired with a mutual friend, Jackie Burns, who knows people in the art world and recommended the craftsman  and with Karen whose task it was to get my precise joining date out of me without spilling the beans (because it seems HR couldn’t oblige)  and commissioned a leather tankard with my career dates.

And as I stood there gazing at it in disbelief, Andrew thrust the microphone at me.

I babbled. I gabbled. I’m not entirely sure what I said. I think I eventually burbled something about thanks and how the two mugs perfectly bookended my career. There is a threat of a video. Bob Prabhu was filming the whole thing for prosperity. If it goes on Facebook I beg you not to watch it.

And with the formalities over, we settled down to some serious partying. I was pleased to see a couple of recently retired  colleagues show up, including Monty Johnson who gave me advice on being retired (get up in the morning!) and Dave Heath. Everyone I ever speak to who has retired has never regretted it. I was amused to find I’d become the advocate for leaving. Several serving members told me they were seriously considering their options and I told them, with all the authority of my three weeks’ experience of retirement, Go For It.

I got a couple more little leaving tokens from Grant Henderson (wine!) and Alan Murdey, which touched me greatly and we eventually weaved our way home when things wound down at about 10.

I managed not to take any usable photos at the party itself (camera in self-timer mode, photographer in  beer mode) but here’s one from the next morning: me with both mugs.



I look pleased I think

So thanks to Steve, Andrew Steele, Karen, Jackie , Bob Prabhu and everyone who came to Park Western that night and gave me a great send off.

Maybe I’ll see you next year.


Courgettes, I’ve had a few…

Sorry about that. One of the things I’ve been doing for the last ten days is helping Karen harvest her kitchen garden and the aubergines and courgettes are coming in.

So what is retirement like?
I don’t know yet. I don’t think it’s quite sunk in.  At the moment it’s a bit like being on leave, or in the middle of a long weekend. I spent the first three days getting the house ready for having a few people round for a barbecue. We got in enough booze to launch an ocean liner only to discover that everyone was driving. I’m now self sufficient in beer and wine for months and the freezer is bulging with burgers and sausages.  Then I came over to Southend and relaxed for a bit. Swimming, cycling, bringing in the veg–exactly what I’d do on an August weekend any other year.

Something inside me still hasn’t quite disengaged. Several times over the last week or so I’ve seen a news item or a friend’s Facebook update from location and instantly thought, that will be my job soon. No it won’t! But the gut reaction is still there. Yesterday I briefly found myself wondering when it would be my turn to stake out Cliff Richard’s place in Berkshire and this morning I had a moment trying to work out where I’d park for the Ecuadorian Embassy.

“I don’t miss this at all” I commented on Facebook.

“Liar” came the response.

The truth is perhaps somewhere in between, but rather closer to my comment. There are things I’ll miss, but not so many I want to change my mind.

Definitely “…too few to mention.”





Stream of consciousness from the top of my head