Rob’s Bookshop

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Abandoned in A&E
Have you ever been passed over, forgotten? This little anecdote addresses many people's worst fear.

Getting into the system took some time. The lone lady in reception was clearly flustered. She glared at me briefly and then said, "There's only me here, you'll have to wait. Just sit over there, next to that gentleman - he's waiting too. We will call  She then continued pounding away at her keyboard. An ageing lady under pressure and well aware of her power - the gatekeeper.

The seat faced the reception desks so I thought that I would be OK. Out of sight, out of mind, surely the opposite must follow - in sight, in mind. Unfortunately the gatekeeper did have a screen (bulletproof?) covering roughly two-thirds of her kiosk, presumably to dissuade that fraction of the walking wounded who might attack - there were notices warning us against violence to the staff hung at strategic positions around the walls. But at least I was seated to the left of the entrance doors and should be able to spot, and neutralise, queue jumpers as they entered.

The other patient waiter was clearly in pain and probably now was not the time for a conversation - but it was too early to take out the book that I had been forewarned to bring, so I ventured the obvious question while keeping a wary eye on the reception desk and the entrance doors.

"What happened to you," I asked,

"Gearbox fell on me leg," he said, wincing.

"Are you a mechanic then," I said, as if a gearbox could fall on any old person's leg.

He didn't seem to notice the superfluity of this remark and gave me all the details: type of vehicle, support given to the gearbox, how the support failed and the heavy crash onto his knee! Fortunately a new lady had now entered the reception area and was directed to this poor chap by the gatekeeper. The new lady, a dumpy woman with a fixed smile, came towards us leaving the gatekeeper alone again; I looked hopefully at her but was ignored.

The mechanic was interrogated and his details recorded. He was then directed to Minor Injuries - yes Minor Injuries! I would have thought that a gearbox falling on one's leg was fairly major. Just what did you have to do to get into Major Injuries? Have the whole motor car fall on your leg? The dumpy lady returned to reception and set up home in an empty cubicle. This is it, I thought, when she has finished punching the mechanic's detail into a computer, she will call me. I will then be interrogated and entered into the system. I was nervously aware that I was not in the system at present. The only person I had talked to was the mechanic and he, naturally, was more interested in the injuries that the gearbox had inflicted than in me and my problems.

Then, my worst fears were realised, a couple swept through the doors and walked straight up to dumpy lady's cubicle - and she started processing them! I had been queue jumped. I could be here forever, never entering the system, shunned and ignored. This was the time for action. I bravely approached the reception kiosks. The gatekeeper did not look up and second lady was busy processing the queue jumpers, innocent queue jumpers I admit, but queue jumpers all the same!

"Have you forgotten me?" I asked, reasonably loudly and hopefully not too plaintively.

Everyone looked at me, the two receptionists and the two queue jumpers. I detected a fleeting look of annoyance in the face of the gatekeeper, then guilt, and then officialdom.

"Please sit down sir. You will be seen once these two have been admitted. We are under pressure here you know."

Thankfully the couples' admission didn't take long - and, when finally called, I got a little apology, not an effusive one - just enough to recognise that I had been unfairly jumped over, though finely balanced by the pressure that these two were under. That dealt with dumpy lady was then briskly friendly, whilst the gatekeeper carried on doing whatever it was that took up so much of her time that she couldn't deal with people. I too was sent to Minor Injuries! I was quite proud to retrace the steps of the badly injured mechanic - well treads actually, he had been pushed there in a wheel chair by a workmate.

At Minor Injuries I found a nurse, as instructed. She quickly decided what was wrong with my injured hand and I quickly learned not to scream when tortured; she wasn't unkind but she certainly knew where to press to find the pain. I was given a piece of paper and directed to the X-ray department. Things were going well. This is where I wanted to be. Another wait at another reception desk, once again there was one lady playing with a computer and another overstressed receptionist dealing with us - the patient patients. I was told to ‘just sit’ in the waiting area, I would be called. The mechanic and his mate were at one end. He now had his shoe and sock off and I could see that the injured leg was tattooed, though the exact nature of the tattoo was not clear. Opposite was an ancient lady who was without her dentures - a sadly humorous sight. She was lying on a trolley, her head supported by a raised rest and her frail body barely making an indent on the sheet. But she was vocal. She was most certainly that. A smart young Indian lady had been sent to find her - certain people who are in the system seemed to have minders who track their progress, though I certainly didn't warrant this premier treatment. The Indian lady smiled and asked questions, noting the answers on a form. The old lady complained bitterly that she had been left in various places. Everyone told her that they would be back for her in half an hour, she said - but didn't come. At one point she swore, even without her teeth the word was quite clear - and the temperature in that X-ray waiting room definitely seemed to drop a few degrees. The Indian lady smiled and said that she would be back in half and hour, then left. The corrosive old lady swept her beady bird eyes around the room -everyone studied the walls, their feet or the notices advising us not to attack the staff. But the lady next to me faltered; she met the old lady's eyes for just a second and was immediately trapped into a hypnotic monologue.

At last my name was called. A man, who was obviously an accountant pathetically disguised in a white coat, took me to the enormous X-ray room. Why is it so big? Do they do group X-rays? Like family portraits but more revealing. Do they X-ray elephants who have been involved with collisions with other elephants? He was efficient and more generous with words than the usual accountant. He frightened me by saying that scaphoid fractures are difficult to detect and can be dangerous because a major blood supply passes through the bone. My hand was X-rayed in four different poses, whilst the accountant hid behind a small screen. I obediently returned to ‘just sit’ in the waiting room. The impossibly old lady was still there but she did not capture me. I was happy. I read my book and waited for the big brown envelope - the reward for successfully passing through the X-ray department.

Then my name was called again, the accountant was back. He led me back to the X-ray ballroom saying that something had gone wrong. Was he going to confess that he was really a chartered accountant and not an X-ray expert at all? Was he going to announce that my scaphoid was shattered and that I might loose the use of my hand? As we entered his shining white domain he immediately confessed that the computer had gone wrong. My X-rays were no good. He had to do them all over again. It didn't take long and I was then told to ‘just sit’ in the waiting area. After some time my name was called again. And this time I was given the large brown envelope. I was so proud and excited. The accountant did not reveal the content in any way. He merely told me to return to Minor Injuries. I couldn't wait to do so.

Walking along the corridor I did a one handed inspection of my X-ray, just as I had seen Harrison Ford do in The Fugitive. There were no fractures visible; the scaphoid seemed to be intact. I was both disappointed and pleased. On the one hand I had come here for nothing; on the other I should soon be out and away. I found a nurse at Minor Injuries quite easily. Sadly she showed no interest in the contents of my brown envelope, she merely stuck it into a rack and told me to ‘just sit’ outside in the corridor until a doctor was available. And so I joined the long line of walking wounded in the thin corridor with its constant flow of trolleys - some empty, some with a sad human cargo, and its slow passage of injured walkers.

Time passed. I did some Spanish practice. More time passed, I studied a book on Turkey, a country that I hoped to visit in a few months time. Hours went by. People came and went. I observed that children got priority attention - why not? I just hoped that there wouldn't be too many more of them. A young woman and her friend came in, she was hardly able to walk, but they brought with them a lightness - the joy of youth. After their first visit to Minor Injuries they happened to sit next to me. The uninjured one of the pair went off to make the inevitable calls on her mobile. So, now thoroughly bored by reading and studying, I asked my neighbour what had happened to her. She was, I guess, about twenty years old, well-built, quite attractive if you like big girls, with an open and smiling face.

"I fell down the stairs," she said, almost proudly.

It transpired that she had been, with her friend, to look at rooms available for rental in a shared house. Somehow she got her foot stuck in the stairway and fell - twisting the big toe very badly, as I could now see. She was waiting to go to X-ray.

"I really hope it's broken," she laughed, "It's the first time that I've been to hospital so I want to leave with something to show for it."

She certainly helped to dispel the gloom of the place, but then her friend returned and they began an intense conversation in a variety of English that I barely understood, so I returned to my books.

I had now passed through various phases in the waiting game. Uncaring at first, I was pleased to have the time to study and read. Later I thought it was quite interesting to watch the comings and goings of the injured. My mechanic smiled as he awkwardly moved up the corridor towards the exit on the crutches that he had been given, others came by in wheelchairs - leg and foot injuries seemed to be the most popular. Then I began to think that I had been forgotten. The thought grew as I saw more people come in, get processed through Minor Injuries and then take their leave - repaired. Then I became obsessed by the possibility of neglect. I could be here forever. Perhaps my brown envelope had fallen off the rack and had been accidentally kicked into a side room. Maybe they had called my name and I had been dozing and had missed it. Perhaps they thought that I had just done a runner, left the place in disgust. No, I told myself, it's none of that, it's just that everyone is more seriously injured than I am.

At long last, after many hours I decided not to ‘just sit’. I determined to enter the inner reaches of Minor Injuries and put the question to them, "have I been passed over?"

Then, almost exactly on cue, my name was called. The nurse, doctor, assistant or whatever was young, dressed in a green uniform and clearly agitated.

"I'm very sorry," she gushed, " we missed you. I don't know why. But why didn't you say something?"

"I assumed there were more urgent cases than mine. So I…."

"You should have said something. Anyway we cannot see a fracture, your X-ray looks fine."

"Yes I know, I looked at……"

"Why didn't you say something? I don't know how it happened. Now, we have to wait for the swelling to go down. It's no good going to Trauma just yet."

"I did it eight days ago, the swelling has gone."

"It will still be swollen. You should have said something, not just sit there."

"What is Trauma?"

"You must go to Trauma tomorrow. They will take a more detailed look. The scaphoid is a difficult bone - they have more time. Now I'm going to fit a wrist support. Which hand is it."


She raced off and returned with a polythene bag which she expertly rips open. Inside was a strange blue and black thing - like a glove with no fingers or thumb and lots of straps. She talks incessantly whilst fitting it to my hand.

"I can't come back tomorrow," I managed to interject, I have to be on the streets collecting money for charity."

"People will give you more money now that you have this on. Now take this form to reception, they will make an appointment for you - ask for an early one. You should have said something."

"I thought….."


"Thanks, bye."

Off I go, past the fresh line of walking wounded. At reception I try to find out what "Trauma" is - but they just make the appointments. I am due to reappear, at the Trauma Department at 9.30 the next day. I am part of the system. This is becoming part of my life. This is becoming my life!

Still at least I have something to show for my sitting - I have a very noticeable wrist support. We spend the night together, really get to know one another. And then it's back again for the 9.30 appointment. Trauma is much further into the limitless buildings of the John Radcliffe Hospital than Minor Injuries. I suppose that makes sense. Nonetheless I am early. The receptionist here has not yet had time to become ensnared by the computer so I quickly learn that there are no papers for me - the brown envelope is lost. Aargh - does this mean I have to go back to the start? Apparently not, this lady seems to have more initiative than the others. She looks at me suspiciously, as if I might be getting into Trauma under false pretences - but an examination of my appointment card soon convinces her that I'm genuine. Without even telling me to ‘just sit’ in the worrying large, enormously capacious, waiting area, she makes a call.

"Hullo, it's me. I've got one here without notes." She does not look at me

"Yes I know." She looks at her nails.

"Are you going to the…" She taps the computer screen with her pen.

"Yes, well it isn't the first time and it won't be the last." She looks despairing.

"Thanks, yes, see you soon." She replaces the phone and says to me. "Just sit over there. Someone will call you."

Chastened by yesterday's marathon, I venture. "Will it take long? Will I have to wait long?"

She looks puzzled, genuinely puzzled, "There's no one here yet. Just sit over there, you will be called."

I had pretty much got the message and slid out of the entrance doors to make a call.

"Its Rob. I'm at the hospital. The way things look I doubt that I'll be there by eleven. Just carry on and I'll find you or phone you. Heaven knows when. I might be here forever."

Just sitting in the Trauma waiting area isn't so bad. It could be used as a theatre; it's so big. The doctors and nurses could stage reviews in the blank area next to the reception desk. Perhaps they do - it would certainly pass the time. Forewarned by yesterday's experience I have brought a fascinating book along this time - it records a motorcycle journey around the world that takes the rider four years to complete. And he completed it without a visit to Trauma.

Things are hotting up. A couple of people have had their name called and have vanished into some inner sanctuary. Then it's me. Wow, this is much better. In the inner sanctuary I am shown to one of the many cubicles that are ranged around the periphery and told to ‘just sit’ - someone will be with me soon. In the centre is a very long bench-table - like a breakfast bar but fitted with computers and X-ray viewing screens and lined with high stools. A balding man with glasses is sitting opposite my cubicle, he is talking to a younger woman - they both wear white coats. He is looking important and she is looking respectful. He is lecturing her about the state of the National Health Service. He understands all of the problems, and has all of the answers. She listens and nods. Then there is a short silence - her eyes wander around the room. Then he starts up again, "If the people who run this place were in industry, they wouldn't last a week." She flicks her attention back to the boss and smiles in feigned agreement. It is doubtful that she listens to his words at all, maybe she's heard it all before. He seems to be the God of Trauma, she an acolyte picking up the pearls of wisdom that he seem all too willing to drop. Someone brings a brown envelope. God picks it up languidly and flicks an X-ray onto the viewing screens. He begins his diagnosis immediately, glancing at the notes and running his finger over the bones of someone's leg. He strokes the tibia and comments on a small fracture at the upper end, the acolyte has his full attention now. His diagnosis is rapid, confident, very much an aside to the diatribe against his employer.

Then I received a visitor, an Australian I think. A handsome, polite young man, he examined my hand, much more gently than the nurse in Minor Injuries did, maybe she was used to more exciting injuries. He was attentive and confidence inspiring, I think that he must have been a junior doctor. He tells me to ‘just sit’ while he confirms the diagnosis. As he leaves he draws the curtain of my cubicle, cutting me off from the world of Trauma which itself is cut from the outside world by the insulating layers of the hospital and its administration. I can just see God through a split in the curtain. His finger waves over the interior view of my hand, now placed on the X-ray screen - it gives me an odd feeling, like someone peering into your soul.

Junior returns and tells me that all is well, they do not think that my scaphoid is fractured - but you can never be sure and it does have blood vessels flowing through it. I am becoming an expert on the bleeding scaphoid. He tells me to wear the wrist support for two weeks and then to try doing without it. In four weeks I should be back to normal.

"But, I have to fit a new kitchen and……."

He listens politely but I know it is hopeless to protest, I am in the system now.

"Just sit here and I will arrange for the physiotherapist to see you."

Oh no, not more expert attention. Now they have me, will they ever let me go!

"Just sit here?" I asked - thinking that I should return to the vast waiting area - there might be a show!

"Yes, someone will find you."

I settled down with my book. After some time I thought I heard someone call my name - but it was soft, coming from a long way away. I couldn't be sure, and I had no idea of where it was coming from. The curtain was now partly drawn, I could see movement in the Trauma workshop, but no one came my way. God was still dispensing his wisdom, nurses moved silently around. I went back to my book. Then I heard it again. Surely not though. Perhaps it was someone with a similar name being called in that grand theatre of a waiting room. And Junior had been quite definite – ‘just sit’ and someone will find you.

Finally I acted, I was not going to be left in that cubicle forever, overlooked and ignored. I sallied forth and accosted a nurse, explained that I was waiting for the physiotherapist and…

The nurse raised her eyes to the ceiling, Junior passed by but didn't seem to notice or recognise me.

"Follow me," she said. And led me to the far end of the huge waiting room. She stopped next to an extensive area furnished as a children's play ground - with slides, rocking toys, even a huge computer games terminal.

"Just sit there, the physio will be out soon."

"Oh dear God, here we go again," I inwardly scream, "I've been missed and now I've dropped out of the system." But at least there was no one else waiting. Then, an elderly couple came along. They wisely sat closer to the physio's door than me. Soon after that the physio popped out saying "Mrs Farginson." The lady got painfully to her feet. I quietly sympathised, but what about me? I fearlessly rushed up to the white-coated physiotherapist.

"Uh, I think I heard my name called. I was in a cubical over there. I wasn't sure. My name is Robert Walters."

The physiotherapist looked a trifle annoyed.

"Just sit there," she said, "I must see this lady first."

"But," I thought as I sank back into the chair," it's so unfair. Junior told me to wait in the cubicle, I couldn't hear you, it's not my fault. Don't leave me here." Meanwhile the words "you should have said something" echoed around my skull.

She did see me after the lady had left, and was delightfully friendly. I was given thumb exercises and told not to wear the wrist restraint unless I went out, "so that other people would know that I had an injured hand." Then she started to make another appointment! Aargh - no more please, no more. We came to a deal. No further appointments but, if the wrist was no better in two weeks then I must call in to make one. I promised that I would do so and was released - free at last! But for how long?

Rob Walters - 17/1/04

Only in Oxford
A strange experience in Borders bookshop (now, sadly transformed into a Tesco Metro)

Last night, Friday 5th October 2002, I was ejected from Borders bookshop in Oxford (now a Tesco Metro!) under police escort. Awaiting me, as I emerged into Magdalene St at nine o’clock on a warm autumnal evening, were three police cars. My crime - attempting to attend a talk which had been advertised in the press and in Borders’ own list of forthcoming attractions!

The talk, by an author who was at the time unknown to me, was due to start at seven. I arrived with my wife, Margaret, just about on time. I’m not sure why she joined me, but was very glad that she did since I might otherwise have doubted my own memories of the event. I had spotted the topic on a Borders’ flyer some time ago and had selected this event from an otherwise uninspiring selection and had written it into my diary: Andrew Malcolm, 7 p.m. We had made the journey from Stow-on-the-Wold especially for the event. Afterwards we intended to have dinner then end up at a city centre pub for some live music and beer. It had the makings of a really good night out: culture, food, beer, music. All in the right order.

As we descended by escalator into the lower ground floor I experienced one of those moments when I sincerely wished that I were alone. I could see the place, a small square in the sports section of the bookshop, where talks were usually held as we travelled downwards. However, the usual arrangement of chairs and public announcement gear was not there. I immediately thought that I had got something wrong: wrong night, wrong place, wrong week, or whatever. If I were alone it would not matter, but with Margaret in tow I would have to assume some responsibility for my mistake. However, there were about a dozen people gathered in the sports section so I made my way towards them. As I approached a white haired man dressed in a black suit turned towards me. We shook hands and I quickly learned that this was the author that I had come to hear - Andrew Malcolm. There was a perceptible state of excitement amongst the little crowd. People were saying that the talk had been cancelled, that the speaker was banned. I was a little confused because I barely knew what the meeting was about anyway; all I knew about the author was that he had been described as “Oxford’s most controversial figure”. I had no idea what he had written or why he was considered to be controversial, I was there to find out. Within the little crowd people looked at each other and raised their eyes. Others said that this was ridiculous. I told one man that I had come from Stow-on-the-Wold to be at this event. He told me that he had travelled from Headington and wanted Borders to repay his 50p bus fare.

The man at the centre of the group, Andrew Malcolm, said that they, Borders, had wanted to cancel the event on the basis that no one would come, yet, as we could observe there were at least ten of us present. He then decided to contact the management and explain that there were people here, people who wanted to hear him speak, so could they please get the thing started. He went off and we milled around, muttering into our beards or whatever beardless people mutter into.

He quickly reappeared with a man in his early thirties, almost bald, casually dressed, round faced, bright eyed and a with a very slight stoop. Malcolm addressed him, basically saying that these people (us) wanted to hear him speak. The young man announced himself as the manager of the store and forcibly pointed out to Malcolm that the event had been cancelled two weeks ago and that he Malcolm had been clearly informed of this by telephone. Malcolm denied this and we, the audience said that we had not been cancelled. I spoke up by saying that we had come all the way from Stow-on-the-Wold for the event - this was rapidly becoming my main contribution to the occasion. He responded by saying that he could not help that, the meeting had been cancelled. He had informed the press and there were notices in the shop to that effect.

Someone then said that the event had been announced in that day’s Oxford Times (which I later saw). He said that he was not in control of the press. Someone else said that the announcement was still on their own (Borders’) website. This was true; it was still there the next morning (5/10/02 at about 11a.m.). Here is the copy:


One of Oxford's most controversial figures introduces his books
Making Names and The Remedy.

The manager said that someone else in the company controlled the website. He answered these questions politely, usually with a half smile. Malcolm kept battering him with more questions, most of which amounted to rephrasings of - why have you cancelled this event? He gave various answers such as:

It was then suggested that, since we were here and so was the author, the event should go ahead as planned. No, said the manager, he would not allow such a thing to go ahead, this was private property and it was his store and he would not allow a meeting to take place. I then suggested to someone, who later turned out to be Malcolm’s wife, that we go to the pub. “No we can go there later,” she said. I had meant that we go to the pub and hold the meeting there but she had obviously misunderstood and I did not pursue the matter.

Malcolm then said that instead of a meeting we could just have a chat. This was greeted with great enthusiasm by everyone in the audience including myself, but not by the manager. He made it clear that he did not want any form of meeting to take place. It was then that a book browser who had been listening to some of the interchange joined the discussion. He was a dark haired man with spectacles and wore light denim clothing. He had the look of a mature student about him. He said that he was disgusted by what he had heard and that if this was the way that Border’s treated people who simply wanted to meet to discuss a book he for one no longer wished to shop there. He left; soon to be followed by the manager.

We then began, rather timidly, to rearrange the furniture. No one seemed to know quite what to do, it was if we were doing something wrong - after all the manager had told us not to meet or even have a chat. At last we had all gathered around the table. The author sat almost opposite me. Beside him sat a small lady with white hair, she wore a mackintosh and carried a shopping bag. Next to her was a white-haired gentleman wearing a cap and heavy, rural-looking jacket. He was thin and had a deeply lined face. He was carrying a small video camera, but had already been told by the manager that he must not use it in the store. Beside me there was a much younger man with longish curly hair and colourful clothing. At one point Malcolm sent him outside to see if there were any people waiting at the doors - people who perhaps had been refused entry by the management. He hesitated, but finally left a little grudgingly. I suspect that he feared that he would not be allowed to return, but he did come back. There was also a smart looking woman at the table. She was in her fifties, had dark hair and a thin, high-boned face. Later we heard her talking about an interview that she had conducted some time ago with Mrs Curry in which Edwina had hinted at an affair with a fellow Tory MP. The revelation that this MP was John Major had been made that week. A considerably older man sat throughout most of the preparations for our ‘chat’ with his back to a pillar, a walking stick in his hand. Well-dressed and probably in his late sixties or seventies he said virtually nothing and, though we all offered him a space, would not draw his chair up to the table. He was “quite happy where he was”. The only other person that I can recall, besides Margaret and myself, was Malcolm’s wife, though I’m sure there were others. Mrs Malcolm was a red-haired, fresh-faced lady with an energetic air and a very expressive face. We heard later that she was a freelance book editor. She was unstinting in her support for her husband, though not above some minor criticism of tactics.

Malcolm himself is not particularly tall and is quite well-built. His face is broad and a little ruddy, he has a short crop of white hair. He does not look the philosopher that he turned out to be, but does have the bearing of an academic. He has charm, probably due to a ready smile and a quick tongue.

As we all settled down he took two books and some papers from his bag and everyone around the table encouraged him to speak. He now seemed rather withdrawn. First he asked if anyone was in complete ignorance of his cause and the content of his books. Margaret and I and one other shyly raised our hands. By this time the camaraderie that had arisen in our group stemming from its opposition to the overbearing Borders’ management made our confession of ignorance seem a little out of place. But confess we had to, otherwise we would have felt even more foolish.

Malcolm began to explain his case very quietly. At first he skirted around the crux of it as if he did not know where to start - and this, from my point of view was disappointing. After all the manager was undoubtedly going to return. Malcolm seemed to be almost in tears as be tried to describe his feelings towards Oxford and its University Press and it was at this point that the manager appeared - with reinforcements.

The two men accompanying him were, we later learned, ‘security’. They were both quite scruffy in appearance - perhaps to blend in with the assumed appearance of shoplifters. The manager addressed Malcolm at first, but also made it clear that we, the audience were embraced by his words. He reminded us that this was his store and that it was private property. Malcolm challenged that on the fragile basis that it was a leasehold building. The manager pointed out that he was not interested in anything that the author had to say. He was clearly still trying to smile, endeavouring to keep up the avuncular guise that he had no doubt been trained in. But the guise was now slipping. He repeated that he wanted us out of his store, that he wanted his table and chairs back, that he had other uses for them. I asked whether this request to leave included my wife and myself. After all we still did not know what Malcolm was going to talk about. We were simply regular customers of Borders and frequent attendees at events like these. He looked at me coldly and said “Yes, each and every one of you.” At this my wife, an emotional and fiery lady at times, leapt to her feet shouting that this treatment was ridiculous, that she was a customer but that after this treatment she would never enter the store again. She then turned swiftly and marched away. She stopped after a few steps, possibly because I was still there. One of the security guards immediately swooped on her chair and took it well away from the table. A minor victory for them.

The other guard, the younger and more pierced of the two, then gave a speech, forcefully telling us that we were wasting everyone’s time and that we must give up the table and chairs or we would be forced to remove them. He had clearly flipped. Malcolm and some others leapt on this mention of force, challenging the manager. The manager then said that if we did not go then the police would be called. The security men then came to each of us demanding that we vacate our chairs. They were menacing but not physically forceful. In the end I grudgingly relinquished mine reasoning that I still did not know what this was all about and that it was their chair and, anyway, my wife no longer had one. Everyone else did the same - except Malcolm who sat on his chair clutching his briefcase, looking a little nervous but quite determined. He tried to talk to the manager, but the man would no longer look at him or listen to him. The manager then left – presumably to call the police!

Malcolm’s chair became a symbol of our strange occupation. During the next hour or so we circulated around the sports section with Malcolm and his chair as our hub. If he needed to get up to stretch than someone else occupied in the chair so that it could not be taken away. And so we waited for the police to come. I had been somewhat arbitrarily dragged into this, but was now firmly on Malcolm’s side. I still did not know what made him the ‘most controversial character in Oxford’. However during the wait I did learn a little more from his wife, from himself and from some of the other other sympathisers.

The manager returned and announced that the police had been called and that we were in his store illegally. The lady with the white hair asked if she could buy a book. At first he said no, he wanted her to leave. Then he seemed to realise that this was silly; this was a bookshop. There was then some negotiation which I missed, but it led to the books being brought to her by one of the security men. Inevitably the books were the two written by Andrew Malcolm. The manager then insisted that she go to the tills in order to pay, the tills being located next to the exit on the ground floor. Sensing a ploy to eject her she refused, insisting that payment could be taken from her right there. She was very keen to buy the books, probably in the belief that it validated her presence in the bookshop thus making the manager’s efforts to remove us seem ever more ridiculous. Once again he relented; in the end I suppose he reasoned that he was there to sell books. A portable credit card swipe machine was brought and the transaction completed.

The police arrived at last in the form of one young lady policeman looking very smart in her freshly pressed white shirt and hung about with all of the technical paraphernalia that the police now carry. She was delightful. She explained that the manager was quite right, that this was private property and since he did not want us there we should leave peacefully. She listened patiently to the many objections made by Malcolm and his support crew. One objection to our removal was the lady with the white hair’s point - that she had actually purchased books whilst she was there, she held them up as if to prove the point. The policewoman looked more and more puzzled then took a deep breath and reiterated her original statement. She also said that we did have to move and refusing to do so could constitute a disturbance of the peace and trespass. She looked in exasperation at the manager of the store and said that clearly she could not eject us on her own but she could bring in other officers if necessary. She then beckoned to the manager and whisked him around the corner for a whispered parlay. I was sure that she was saying something along the lines of “What the hell is this all about, why don’t you let them hold their meeting and get rid of them?” But that is pure surmise.

She did not return so we began the wait for reinforcements. Though I had supported the spontaneous protest so far - primarily feeling aggrieved at Borders for wasting my time and for their apparent attempt to gag Malcolm - I now had my doubts. I said to Malcolm’s wife that the point had been made. Borders now looked very silly. They had called the police and prevented an event that they themselves had organised. The involvement of more police could easily be construed as wasting police time and that waste could be fairly placed at Malcolm’s door. She listened sympathetically but said that it was Andrew’s decision. I put the same point to him. However, he was obviously excited by the turn of events and said that he wanted to attract the maximum publicity to his cause from this heavy-handed action by Borders.

Then the police did arrive in force. Four of them, including our original police lady. A cheerful, short and powerfully built officer was spokesman. He talked only to Malcolm and soon persuaded him to leave, and we then followed. Funnily enough as we mounted the escalator the security men added an extra member to our party. A tall man in his early thirties was grabbed by the elbow and told that he was banned from the store and had to leave immediately. I can only assume that he was a book thief - the company we keep!

As we rode the escalator the lady who had interviewed Edwina Curry told me that she felt emotionally drained by the whole evening. Did I feel the same way? I said that I did not so she transferred her interest to my wife, with whom she was able to commune. Outside on the street were three police cars and a number of puzzled bystanders. They wanted to know what was going on and I did not know where to begin an explanation of the entire affair. My wife told them simply that Borders were suppressing free speech and that they shouldn’t shop there.

The police seemed quite content that they had succeeded in removing us from the bookshop. They did not arrest us. My wife and I were now fully adopted members of the Andrew Malcolm supporters club: while the man with the cap and rural jacket filmed the continuing friendly interchange between the police and Oxford’s most controversial character we were thanked for staying throughout the whole thing. Once the police had departed we were asked to join them all for a drink. We did not, partly because they could not decide where to go, partly because we were still not sure why we were there and partly because we had somewhere else to go. Live music and beer in a city centre pub beckoned.

Later I had a little time to leaf through a copy of The Remedy, Malcolm’s second book, a copy of which he kindly gave me. It is a record of his dispute with Oxford University Press. It is well-written and he makes what could be a very dry and fractious topic quite lively. My first take on the case was that it is one in which two, previously reasonable, parties have forced each other into extreme positions from which any compromise seems quite out of the question. Many people have been hurt by the case, not the least Malcolm himself and the OUP editor who initially handled the manuscript; and no one will ever rise from this smelling of roses. It was a reminder to me to choose battlefields very carefully, to accept the inevitable at times, and to always ensure that whatever a publisher says about the publication of a writer’s work is obtained in writing.

What is a mystery to me is why Borders had arranged that evening’s event, advertised it quite widely, and then cancelled it at the last moment. I am not one to see conspiracies everywhere, most seeming conspiracies are actually cock-ups in my experience, but in this case ………….

We continued to wait for the policemen. Another person joined us, clearly a friend of the Malcolm’s and an active supporter of the “cause” - whatever that might be. What little I did learn about the cause was from Malcolm, his wife and the white haired lady. Andrew Malcolm had written a book called Making Names, some form of philosophy text. It had been accepted for publication by Oxford University Press, then later rejected. Since that time Malcolm had been suing for breach of contract, etc. Naturally I asked if there was actually a contract, the answer was “yes effectively”. Clearly this was the nub of the dispute. I also learned that the author had set up his own bookshop in Oxford’s Broad St for two months during the summer. It was genuinely used for selling his books but was also the centre for his campaign against OUP and, I guess, sited as it was in the street that was home to the original Press, cocked a snook at his enemy.

About half an hour into our vigil the least pierced of the security men made an appeal. This whole thing was silly and a waste of time, he said. He was now late for his dinner and involving the police in a matter of this nature was a waste of their time. A few of us responded to this by saying that it was Borders that had wasted our time by cancelling this event at the last moment. If, regardless of the cancellation, they had allowed the meeting to go ahead the entire thing would be over by now. I, for one, would have been a little the wiser and he could have been at home eating that all-important dinner.

Breaking the fast
A day without food and the delight of a new dawn - a breakfast to be slowly relished.

Every year, just before Christmas, I fast for at least 24 hours. There is no one reason for this. I do it to prove that I can. I do it because I then feel better able to cope with the gluttony of Christmas. I do it because it has now become a tradition with me. I do it because I think one should fast now and then. But I also do it for the sheer pleasure of breaking the fast.

This is the year of 2002. I began my fast at about 12.30 am on Sunday morning – the 22nd. I had been to the Wheatsheaf Pub with my son to watch a band called Smilex. The band’s lead singer is a nutcase who climbs onto any available surface during his performance and throws things at the audience – chocolate minirolls in celebration of Christmas in this case. I ate a miniroll, had four or five pints of beer, watched an old Elvis performance on TV, then ate a few potato crisps with cheese. And then to bed.

I ended my fast at 10.30 a.m. on Monday morning, thirty-four hours later. In the interim I drank tap water only. Probably about a litre at the most. As usual, the early stages were the toughest. I had the beginnings of a cold which exacerbated the waves of faintness which usually occur in the afternoon. As the day wears on I tend to become more introspective, and look forward to the night and sleep. But sleep does not come that easily when your stomach is empty. I salivate a lot, which is not good and when sleep finally arrives it is a little disturbed – and the dreams therefore more memorable. This time I dreamed that I was going to a casino with friends. I spent a lot of time arguing about the price of entry, though my friends had already entered. Finally reaching an agreement, I entered and, for some dream-like reason I was suddenly transported to a beach with a cliff face directly in front of me. It was my job to drill a large number of holes in order to mount some object on the face of the cliff, I think the object was an odd Christmas gift that I had purchased for our Christmas bran-tub. I was still aware that I had to go to the gambling halls at some stage and this brought some pressure to the task. I also became aware of movement behind me. I turned and saw that some large slug like creatures which I had already noticed, but thought incapable of motion, were making their way across the beach. I was frightened of them, even though they were not approaching me. The dream blurred after that. There was no ending.

I awoke fairly early and spent an hour or two somewhere in between sleep and waking. I got up at 9.30 a.m. dressed in old but warm clothing and took the dog for a run. It was foggy and wet, the fields were slippery, but the run was good. I returned at sometime after ten, felt ill and therefore decided to shower before eating. The shower had its magical effect, I felt ready to break my fast and begin the ritual of carefully preparing my breakfast. The food is identical to the food I have almost everyday – but normally I am barely aware of it. My breakfast consists of a glass of orange juice, preferably not too cold; a bowl of cereal with piping hot milk; a banana, preferably in perfect condition; and a cup of fennel tea – with a sweetener tablet. I prepare them reverently and slowly. I need to be alone as I do this. I lay them out carefully on the dining room table. The cereal directly in front of me, the banana to the left, the orange juice straight ahead – just beyond the cereal, the fennel tea steaming away to the right. Then I wait for a while to increase my anticipation, improve my concentration and to relax myself – also I wait to prove to myself that I can wait.

I then take the first sip of orange. Glorious. It cuts like a scythe through the metallic mustiness that has built up in my mouth. It is the essence of orangeness. It splits into water, into sugar and back to that central smooth orange liquor. I take another sip and that is just as good, then another, the glory begins to fade, but it is still good to feel that cool wholesome liquid pass over my tongue and down the throat into the knotted stomach. It is so substantial after the thinness of water.

Then the cereal, currently I eat a pecan and maple mixture. The contrast is wonderful, it is hot where the juice is cold, it is sweet where the juice has that refreshing tanginess. My teeth are aware of crunching each individual nut. My tongue savours the sweetness of the maple syrup and the warmth of the milk. My mouth is filled with the consistency of the cereal and the activity of munching. Spoonful after spoonful, it tastes so good that I want it to last forever, but then it is gone.

Then the banana, I peel it slowly, almost erotically. I softly nibble off the tip. Soft, creamy, tasty – is there any little package which is more filled with goodness than a banana? Someone once told me that they could no longer bear to eat them, because they had once been placed on a banana diet in order to reduce weight - how sad. That morning’s banana is as near perfect as can be. The skin is blotched with dark patterns, but the fruit is unblemished from tip to toe, and all too soon it has gone.

Then the hot fennel tea, sweet hot fennel tea, tasting so much sweeter then usual, and yet it contains the same single sweetener tablet. Fennel is a nice taste, a subtle taste, it tastes like its name It is the essence of Ouzo from Greece without the alcohol. Anis from Spain without the A.

And then it’s all over. Back to normal for another year. Christmas is just around the corner, mince pies, turkey, beer, wine, sprouts, cheese, port, brandy, cake, pudding. But none of it, not one bit of it, will be quite as pleasurable as that first glass of orange juice.

Motorcycle News
A new motorcycle, a police riding course and a crash on the way home.

Some people have the supreme ability of total and absolute recall. Rubbish, in fact they simply have a supreme belief in their own recollections, a secret video camera or a well kept diary could soon appraise them of reality. I recall a blue car nosing out from the left, a glance to the right then back again to the main road. The road was then entirely occupied by the blue car. There was no way out and no time to stop. I am certain that I said “Oh f….” but did not complete the expletive. I am not cerain that I actually had time time to apply the brakes at all. I think that I laid my motorbike down to the right, aligning it with he car in a reflex action that just might have minimised my injuries. Who knows?

When my motorcyle was first delivered I just happened to be looking out of my office window. The biket was strapped to a trailer and it certainly did look good. Gleamingly new, powerfully proud, it took the eye of a young man who was walking along the road hand in hand with his girlfriend. She must have seen it too, but was unaffected. He meanwhile swivelled his head, following the course of the machine so closely that it seemed his neck might snap.

What is this thing about motorcyles? It clearly affects only a minority of people and mostly males at that. Normal people, if they have an opinion at all, regard them as dangerous, dirty, and noisy – and regard the people who ride them in much the same light.

The average age of motorcyclists has followed a bath shape curve over the years. Once the province of the older man, and primarily regarded as a basic means of transport for those who could not afford a car it evolved into the symbol of youthfull revolution, spurred to some extent by Marlon Brando in his own youth. Nowadays the average motorcyclist is mature, wealthy and a hobbyist. With that change has come the drive towards safety, a strange twist on a pursuit that is intrinsically unsafe. Bikes have better brakes and better handling, meanwhile riders tend to take courses to make them into better riders.

I cannot recall the collision. Some time afterwards someone opined that this was just as well - maybe. Having spent many, many hours zooming around the world in commercial jets I had often considered my possible reaction to the crash which probability predicts will come as you increase your air miles. When asked by a calm but despairing pilot to adopt the brace position – a codified message which means “prepare to meet thy maker” – I  wished that I might die with dignity. More than that, I desired to die with my eyes open, observing the last details of my life. This desire is in strict opposition to the gibbering whimpering, eyes-closed, wreck of man who in all probability would go screaming from this world. The only thing that I actually recall from the  motorcyle crash is the thing being lifted from me, the blood that filled my mouth and the dull pains spreading through my body together with an overbearing weariness of body and sickness of mind.

I enrolled on a motorcycling course for two reasons, first I really wanted to know what best to do if and when I did crash and second I wanted my son to come along with me so that he would not crash at all. The course was run by Bill and Rog, both policeman with many years experience in “traffic” and with the police riding manual thoroughly ingested and ready for instant regurgitation. I admired Bill’s style of presentation enormously - and I speak as an expert here. I once thought that I was a good teacher and had little to learn, then I learned how little I knew about teaching. Bill would have served as an excellent example to me in those days. Take body language as an example, Bill knew exactly how to stand - feet wide apart, arms firmly folded, head well back. He had no truck with shared eye contact, piercing stares were the order of the day. Questions were welcomed – usually by the piercing stare and some stabbing response the essence of which centered on the silliness of the question. Audience interaction was encouraged, unelicieted questions were deflected by demeaning both question and questioner, answers to rhetorical questions were invariably wrong and treated with the disdain Bill knew they deserved. Favourites were quickly established and their servile banter beamed upon tolerantly. Women were consigned to the kitchen both in thought and action and the women motorcyclists, a small but noticeable minority on the course, did not rise to the bait. We were in thrall to Bill, perhaps mesmerised by this display of didactic anti-skills.

For all of that he, and his less ebullient co-presenter Rog, managed to get their point across very well. They had something that many teachers lack – street cred. They had ridden motorcyles at 135 mph and survived, they had investigated many accidents, they had ingested the police motorcycling manual and they favoured the hare over the tortoise – speed was OK providing you employ it at the right place and the right time.

The impact of a crash has many side-effects, perhaps one of those is a selective awareness of one’s surroundings. I felt immensely grateful to my rescuers. They formed a sea of immemorable faces who asked me how I was, removed my blood spattered helmet, half carried me to the side of the road, brought me water, called the ambulance and looked after the many things that need someone’s attention when an accident occurs on a busy city street. My chief concern was how to get my damaged bike home. It was “Rockstar” who told me that the bike was immoveable, a fellow motorcyclist he had stopped to help a fellow in need. He had the good sense to profer his mobile so that I could call someone. I called my son on Rockstar’s phone. It was not an easy call to make, I concentrated upon providing the facts: bike crash, where I was, my injuries where known and so forth. Rockstar, I never did get his real name, was either exremely empathic or the opposite. He asked me whether I was a regular at a particular biker’s café, told me what a great place it was and encouraged me to come along. This strange conversation was diverting and was more helpful than the doe-eyed attention of the driver of the blue car or the desire of others to help in some way – rather like a bereaved spouse faced with so many offers of help I could think of nothing for them to do. Then the professionals arrived.

The culmination of my motorcycling course was a ride-out. A chance to venture out with a police rider, an opportunity to show off your bike and your riding or an opportunity to expose one’s bike and riding to ridicule. It was, much to my relief, a nice day – nothing is worse than riding with others when the roads are wet. I am not in any way a social rider. I like to ride with my son but that’s about all. Why motorcyclists feel the need for group outings is a mystery me. Riding a motorbike is essentially a lonely activity. You cannot normally communicate with other riders except by sign language, and that can be as confusing as it is limited. I suppose the pleasure must be in the stopping, the post ride discussions and the pre-ride planning. I compare this to TV aficionados who often ask whether you saw a particular programme on the previous evening, one that they had obviously enjoyed. On receiving a negative response they move on, trying to find a kindred viewer. At first I found this behaviour exceedingly odd, why, if they had enjoyed the programme would they not want to tell me, who hadn’t, all about it? Later I realised that they did not want to share the information, they wanted to share the experience, to relive it in some way. Perhaps communal motorcycling is like this to its aficionados.

In any event my trip was not ostensibly social, I did not know the other riders in my group except for the occasional word exchanged during the theory part of the course, and the leader was a complete stranger to us all. He was a confident square jawed chap in his early forties. Tall, almost too tall for his motorbike, he introduced himself and then asked about our riding experience. I gave a self-effacing but fairly accurate account of my own riding so far, the next rider gave an operatic account of his, including a list of countries visited that seemed never ending, he finished by announcing that he had no race course experience. The third rider could not trump that but came pretty close. “Oh, oh,” I thought, “these lads are really serious motorcyclists.” Macho man, our leader explained the rules of the game. Speed limits to be obeyed through towns and villages, outside of that he said, “I am not a policeman, it is up to you.”

We set off, macho man in the lead, me second, and the two experts last. We were the big bike group, everyone powered by an engine exceeding one litre – bigger engines than many cars. For all of my engine size I felt intimidated, no one seemed interested in my bike, it was rather special yet I sensed that they looked down on it. Though fairly confident of my own riding skills this environment made me nervous, like someone who sings is the bath suddenly being pushed onto the stage of a packed concert hall. I was here to learn but I perceived that there was a little more to this ride, it was innately competitive. Added to that I did not know the country at all – this was not my patch.

Much to my surprise we lost the other two at the first roundabout, macho man pulled into a side road to wait for them. This was encouraging, but I was later to find just how difficult it was to keep up when traffic at roundabouts and changing traffic lights tended to split you from the pack. I was given first lead. Macho man gave me some confusing navigational instructions and told me to take off, he would follow and observe me in action. I hated this. I had no idea where I was going and was exquisitely aware of being observed. I suppose that being watched becomes a natural thing to an actor, perhaps not. I am a mature man and have spent many years lecturing and speaking at conferences. When I know what I am talking about I am serenely confident – I think. Here I felt awkward. I changed gear at the wrong moments, forgot to cancel my indicator, took wrong turnings. In short I behaved like an idiot and was supremely relieved when macho man indicated that one of the other riders should take over the lead.

That the collision had unbalanced my mind was brought home to me by the youthfull policeman who asked simple questions, questions that I had difficulty answering. One of these concerned the direction of travel. I knew that my progress was towards the centre of the city, yet I indicated the wrong direction. It was then that I began to doubt that I knew where I was at all.I could see some shops on the other side of the street, but I did not know them well, yet I felt that I should do. Ever since the accident I had felt removed from my physical surroundings, somewhat as if this had not really happened to me, as if I was placed inside this injured body as an observer. My disorientation increased this feeling – and presumably made the policeman doubt anything that I said. A day later I had a call from Rockstar. His phone had recorded the number I had keyed to contact my son and he used the number to call and ask how I was – how nice. It was Rockstar who helped to reassert my orientation. Although he had not seen the accident itself, it was obvious to him that the bike had spun by 180 degrees. I had been sat at the roadside watching my bike loose its life supply of brake fluid, saddened by the twisted front end and smashed windscreen and vaguely puzzled by the shops on the opposite side of the road, vaguely aware that they should have been on my side of the road. Rockstar’s observation explained it all, the bike was pointing in the wrong direction  - confusing imagery for a foggy mind.

As the third rider flashed by macho man and myself I felt a twinge of concern. There was a look of determination about this man. He sat bolt upright on a police style bike in a position which seemed to be pushing the machine forward, he did not glance at us as he passed – a bad sign. He did adhere to speed limits however and my machine was an adequate match for his in acceleration. Then we swept out into the countryside and I was struggling to keep up. I tried to remember all that we had been taught, I positioned myself so that I commanded the maximum view of the road ahead. I engaged the correct gear, took cognisance of possible dangers, accelerated smoothly around bends. But it was those bends that did it. The others took them at a greater speed than I did. Not a lot, but enough to ensure that I constantly dropped behind and therefore had to accelerate hard along the straights in order to catch up. At times I enjoyed the ride, it was exhilarating, yet I also felt inadequate as a rider, that I was letting the “team” down by my slow cornering, that I was being forced to ride at speeds that were beyond the capability of my machine. I was relieved to reach the mid-point in our ride, the gentle approach into the market town was relaxing after our searing ride through the countryside – but there was still the return ride to look forward towards.

I began to weep in the ambulance. I’m not sure why: frustration, embarrasment, shock – I held back the tears but I did want to cry. This was my first ambulance trip as an accident victim and I certainly did not want to loose my dignity or fail to observe the experience. The nurse was efficient, though distant. She had a procedure to go through and did so kindly and cooly. I was given oxygen, my blood pressure was checked, my details taken, my symptoms noted. All this while the ambulance swung around corners and I tried to ascertain from the very poor backwindow view just where we were. I knew where we were going, but still felt some need to check progress and establish current location. We arrived at the hospital at last. I was, if anything, deteriorating. My foot ached abysmally and I felt as if a mature bull had rammed into my left side. I could taste blood and could not resist exploring a wound above my eye.

I was wheeled to the casualty department and parked in a cubicle. I have an inordinate fear of being abandoned within the confusing confines of large hospitals. This is a well founded fear based on an actual abandonment. On that occasion I was quite capable of asserting myself and slipped back into the system, here I felt powerless, confined to a wheelchair and feeling pitiful. Fortunately a nurse came by, repeated most of the procedures endured in the ambulance then wheeled me into the waiting area. These are odd places. There is little to do except wait and to examine the injuries of fellow sufferers. Dressed in scraged black leathers, a bloody crash helmet on my lap, a cut above the eye and a bloody mouth, I was an interesting new diversion for a while. The injured and their companions looked at me either openly or surreptitiously, some, I thought, contemptuously – there does exist a minority of people who believe that injured motorcyclists bring their damage upon on themselves, like smokers with lung cancer. No one spoke to me and I was in no condition to make conversation. I felt very low, very much alone, unwilling even to observe other people’s injuries. I had been told that a doctor would see me in about an hour. Clearly my injuries were not thought to be serious, though I felt dreadful. As the wait went on I became more aware of my pains. It was extremely difficult to move and almost impossible to find a comfortable position in the wheelchair.

Time passed, how long I do not know. Then my son arrived, and I broke down. I had been preparing myself for his arrival, yet I broke down. He, poor lad, had no idea what to say or do. He was then a lad of 23 tender years, a fellow motorcyclist, sensitive but unempathetic. I tried to speak but sobbed instead, hitting my helmet with my hand in frustration. I tried again and again with the same result. He was puzzled and said nothing. At last I got to grips with myself and began to discuss the accident. He had been to the spot and gave me some feedback in his abrupt, matter of fact, manner. Then the police entered the waiting room and took a statement from me. My wife arrived and looked, I thought, disapproving more than sympathetic. She touched my hand but was otherwise undemonstrative. We talked about the accident and waited and waited. Then at last my name was called.

The mid-point in the ride took place at one of those souless places purpose builings that have been constructed for some ill-defined purpose, they have toilets and noticeboards and a bar and vast car parks. They are often rented for wedding anniversaries and other duty celebrations. Enterprising children had set up in business, cleaning the visors of each motorcyclist for a voluntary contribution – to their own funds. Tea and coffee was available for the caffeine addicts. Posturing next to one’s machine for the proud. The lecturer was well-known to us all, we had been given a video to watch to reinforce the information imparted by Bill and Rog and this man, together with his blonde moustache, had been the co-star. The video was awful, one of those amateur documentaries where the players are painfully aware that they are on camera but are painfully endeavouring not to be. Fair moustache was better in real life, he was an advanced riding instructor and had picked up a few interactive skills. He was even a little controversial, launching the lingering front light on, front light off, debate. Some say that that always having the front light on makes us more noticeable to the enemy, others that a quick application of the brakes causes the bike to dip which some car drivers interpret as a signal to go. He thought the latter was likely but did not advise us to switch off our lights. Then it was over, we prepared to ride again, donning helmets, gloves, zipping up jackets and boots. Macho man had taken advantage of the break to change his motorcyle! He now had a red Fire Blade, by far the smallest of the four machines that made up our troup, but viciously fast and manipulable. I tried to stamp this amazing change onto my consciousness, I didn’t want to end up following someone on a blue bike of the type that he had ridden earlier. At the briefing I volunteered not to take the lead, I thought I would learn more by watching macho man’s positioning. Besides, I had no idea of the route and no desire to slow down the party, this was a mistake.

The doctor was concerned about my injuries. I thought that they were painful but trivial, after all I had been sitting for several hours in the waiting room, hardly an emergency case. My outer clothing was removed and my chest bared. I timidly mounted the trolley bed suffering excruciating pain from my back, shoulder, chest and right foot. The examination was rapid and hurtful. The doctor clearly thought that I had suffered a spinal injury, he obtained a neck brace which clamped my adam’s apple so tightly that I could not swallow – and therefore needed to swallow all the more. He then taped my head to the trolley so that no movement was possible. It was horrific, a room 101 scene. My sister’s son has muscular atrophy, he can only move two fingers, sufficient to operate his computer. For the first time in my life I felt that I had some idea what life might be like for him. As I was wheeled to the X-ray department I could see little except the lights implanted in the high ceiling. I am prone vertigo and the irrational fear of a sudden attack of dizziness became almost overwhelming. But I made it to the X-ray department without either going crazy or passing out. There things became worse. The overbearing pain now emanated from my right shoulder and foot but the doctor, who had accompanied me to the X-ray room was clearly convinced that I had injured my spine somewhere below shoulder level. He therefore found it necessary to tug sharply on my right hand as the X-ray was taken. The pain was agonising and I did feel that I was being tortured into revealing the true secret of my crash, or the secret formula for a whitening toothpaste that actual worked, or the plans for destabilising the National Health Service – the answers to which I could never supply no matter how bad the pain simply because I did not know them. Then it was over, I was wheeled back to the accident department, swivelling my eyes to try to see what was going on, wondering whether my wife was still following me, feeling sorry for myself , feeling fragile, helpless, dependent.

A long and painful wait, then the doctor returns at last with the X-rays which he flips through distractedly. There is clearly something wrong, he appears and dissapears within my restricted field of vision, my little world. Then he stands over me, looking concerned. The X-rays are not definitive, he needs to see more, can I bear to have my shoulder pulled again, pulled a little lower? What can I say, I am in the hands of the experts now, a body to be probed and tortured until it gives up its secret injuries. I agree and point out that my foot is very painful and has yet to be examined.

Another strapped down, prone, eye swivelling trip to the X-ray department, another attempt to pull off my right arm, another wait – then I am free. Nothing wrong with the back as far as the doctor can discern – but my ankle is broken and is set into a temporary plaster cast by a jolly nurse who makes a lot of mess but does the business, issues me with crutches and pain killers plus an appointment for the dreaded trauma department the next day. I negotiate a day’s grace, explaining that I have an important examination the next day. This causes the jolly nurse to level a penetrating gaze in my direction. I think she wonders whether I am taking my injuries seriously or perhaps whether someone of my age could really be taking an important examination. My wife wheels me to the car and I, together with crutches and broken foot, am manoeuvred out of the wheelchair and into the passenger seat. No sleep for me that night.

A busy week in Oxford
Blues, lectures, pubs. Oxford as I like it.

Monday: Good weeks start on a downer - the entry in my diary said simply ‘5.15 - The Truth.’ I turned up at the well-concealed lecture theatre in the Radcliffe Infirmary (now closed) dead on time. The notice on the door said that the lecture started at 6.15 - damn. The truth is that I am not too good at transcribing things into my diary - and now I may never find The Truth.

But all is not lost; Monday is blues night at the Bullingdon. Good group: Eddie Martin and the Texas Blues Kings. Great name, but none of the group is from Texas - who cares? The lady playing bass guitar is wearing a cowboy hat.

Eddie is supposed to be the greatest guitarist since Eric Clapton. He is bald and wears dark glasses, plays the harmonica and sings well. What an icon - he even wore a leopard skin coat - but later confided to me that it is artificial marmoset.

I like these blues nights. Dim lights, good music and a range of ages from student to OAP. And at the centre of it all, Silver Phil, the organiser - dressed in black, bestrewn with heavy silver jewellery and overflowing with a waterfall of silver hair.

Tuesday: Visit Sainsburys. Buy weird things: Jerusalem artichokes, root ginger, onions, cous-cous. I don't know what to do with it all but I'll think of something. No queue at the cash desk, and the lady was friendly - what's going on?

Off to a talk by Carole Angier. She's one of the biographers of Primo Levi, and actually teaches biography as a topic. The fascinating thing about this talk was that Carole seemed defensive, even apologetic, about her book. The reason, on the face of it, is simple: the biography is intrusive. I suppose all biography is, but in this case the subject's family are still alive and kicking - they didn't want the biography written. Also Primo Levi is apparently a hero for many, and Carole's book knocks him off the pedestal. Afterwards there was a little party - and I went! Should I have been there? I don't know, but someone has to help drink the free wine. I was one of the last to leave and ended up with a little group of undergrads who are all studying biography. They were fun - so much more open than the academics. No face to lose I suppose.

And so to a wonderful piano recital at Maison Française. It was free, yet not that well attended. The person next to me thought that more people would have come if there had been a charge - perhaps that's the way we value things. This show was priceless. I didn't know many of the pieces, but they were all beautiful. Beethoven is still communicating with us centuries after his death, and will still be at it after millennia, if the race lasts that long. John Fowles once said that writing books is man's attempt to grasp eternity - but music is better. How the hell did Grégoire Baumberger commit to memory three long pieces by Beethoven, Ravel and Brahms - and who on earth bought him such a wide tie?

Afterwards a quick visit to the Lamb and Flag pub in St Giles where I met a really nice man called Tony. He is one of the legion of older divorcees that our society is throwing up. After thirty years of marriage he had his feet in his slippers, his mind on his garden and his eye on retirement. Suddenly he is single again, a new job, a new home, a new life. It can almost kill some people but this man is a positivist. He's out and about and he's coming to the Blues next Monday!

Wednesday: Went to a lecture at the Clarendon Labs about Life at Extremes. Everything was in darkness and the doors were locked. I was a little late so maybe the lecture was taking place with the lights out and the heating off - lectures at an extreme. In a huff I trotted round to the Burton Taylor Theatre for the early show. It was rubbish. I usually enjoy student productions. This one was by the Oxford Revue and called Pit Stop. I think it was supposed to be funny but suspect that I missed most of the references. So did most of the audience. An enthusiast sitting at the back laughed uncontrollably whenever one of the actors appeared - regardless of what the young man did or said, such is loyalty. The plot, if there was one, involved a Victorianesque couple, the Leeds football club and many butlers who had taken refuge in the couples' sauna. Noam Chomsky also featured - but was eaten at some stage by the Victorian male, I was not convinced by his characterisation anyway.

Afterwards I went to the Gloucester Arms to recover. Over the noise of the loudest heavy metal jukebox in town I became acquainted with a man whose mother was Glaswegian and father Palestinian. He was born in Jerusalem and had strong opinions about everything from the Iraqi situation to the Welsh character. After the play he seemed refreshingly normal. Then home to concoct something special with those weird things that I bought from the supermarket. It was not good but I am undeterred.

Thursday: It's a biography week. Today the pert and loquacious Georgina Ferry delivered an intelligent and spirited attack on the low standing given to the biographies of scientists. She, of course, writes biographies - of scientists. The lecture is part of a series sponsored by the Dictionary of National Biography a new version of which is soon to be released; so more free wine! This was the least well attended of the lecture series; the others were from biographers who have written on artists and writers. I suppose people think that scientists have boring lives - but Georgina doesn't.

Then off to Ruskin College for an evening of unusual music from Flute Phil and friends. I think everyone in Oxford knows of him. You can often seem him playing his flute in the Cornmarket and there has been a furore of correspondence in the local papers after some chap had the gall to criticise his music. Undaunted, he was in fine form both playing solo and when accompanying some of his friends. Most of the musicians who play at Sparky's Flying Circus were there. They play in the Half Moon and, look, could that be the landlord, Joe, up on the stage there bashing away at his bodhran? With nearly all the customers and also the landlord here I wondered what is happening to the pub.

Soft lights and susurrating music - I think I've been switched back in time to some hippy happening. And then the elegant, white bow tied, Icelandic compere shatters it all by playing something that he composed for his son. If the music is anything to go by, the son has an over abundance of energy and tranquillity is not his middle name.

Back to reality in my local pub. The landlord's had a haircut and he's cleanly shaved. What's going on? Are standards going to rise? Will I have to find somewhere else to drink? He just smiles mysteriously and surveys the bar. All is well; the customers are still as chaotic as normal, if chaos can be normal.

A visit to Lima, Peru
A memory from my life as a jet setter!!

I wrote this little account whilst I was still flitting around the world in gainful employ – mostly teaching engineers about mobile technology, particularly the then up and coming third generation. This was part of a round the world trip. I had been lecturing in Buenos Aires, Argentina before flying to Lima and afterwards went to Japan and Singapore. My writing style was perfunctory and quite lacking in detail back then. I hope that it has improved since. I’ve tidied the piece up a little but do feel somewhat embarrassed by the concentration on nightclubs (peñas) and beer. Believe me I did visit churches, palaces and museums when I had time in the day, but for some reason it was the night life that made me write.

Lima. Everyone says that it is dangerous so you become neurotic. Yet it does not seem so bad, though there are clearly heavy crime levels and heavy cause for crime. Twenty five percent of the population of Lima is unemployed. ‘Les pobres’ are everywhere and their makeshift villages surround this sprawling capital of capitals. Indian children are routinely used for begging and they can be extremely persistent. Blocking your way at every step as you walk the squares of the city, holding out a dirty hand and constantly pleading in a pitiful voice saying ‘one sole’. I gave nothing, though I noticed that both Cuban-American bankers in my guided party did so – to the same little girl, aged about seven years and able to flash between utter disinterest and plaintive begging in an instance. I have seen similar beggars in Oxford. What to do? Break a rule of life? No, let the rich Americanos pay. They, with their Spanish ancestry perhaps bear some guilt, one of the bankers almost said as much. The invaders were both vicious and politically adept. They took advantage of an intra-Incan civil war to take over a successful civilisation, though I wonder about the level of civility in any civilisation that lacked a written language.

Before coming to Peru I had thought the Incas to be a very ancient civilisation – but it seems they were not. The empire rose quickly from one Andean tribe, with a messianic, military leader at their head they spread rapidly across the country. Writing or not they were clearly clever in terms of building design, tools, ceramics and textiles. Where are they now? Do the Incas live on within the mixed blood of the mestizos or within the remaining Indian tribes or within the Indians that cling to poverty on the outskirts of Lima?

Taxis are everywhere, tooting, shouting, flashing. There has been an attempt to cut down on the number by establishing official yellow ones which have a number on the side, but it has not worked. You have to bargain every time that you enter a taxi. On my first nervous expedition, to Barranco, I asked at the hotel desk what the trip should cost, ‘Eight dollars’, the receptionist said (most hotels deal in American dollars, virtually ignoring the local sole). But that fare is for a hotel taxi which is “safer”. So I walked from the hotel to a nearby thoroughfare and stopped the first taxi that I saw – no problem here, they descend upon you like flies around dead meat. I asked him the cost to Parca Municipal. He said $8 dollars! I looked at him unbelievingly and queried, ‘dollars’. His expression became a little wolfish and he said, “No soles, ocho soles”. So I got in, having saved myself some six dollars. Afterwards someone told me that I had still paid too much. Actually I found the entire bargaining business irritating after a while. Why don’t they just give you a price that’s realistic?

The people were friendly. Certainly those on my course were, and others that I met elsewhere. I had a fantastic tour guide called Jenny. She told me that she was a mestiza – part Spanish, part Indian. What a mixture: small, petite, brown slightly angular features. Beautiful with a ready smile she had raven-black hair and a very attractive accent. She told me that she was single and still lived at home at the age of 28! She was waiting for the right man.

On that first expedition I met a local in Juanita’s bar on the Avenida Grau. He was a little drunk. Having discovered that I was English he started each sentence in my language but then dribbled into a slurred Spanish that I had no chance of understanding. He wanted me to go with him to some place that had dancing (I think) but I bought him a beer and left. I found somewhere to eat, consumed my first Lomo Saltado and then returned to the bar next to Juanita’s. The sweeper there had given me a flyer stating that the place had live music. But the music was no good so home to bed.

The next night I went to Chaccun’s, a huge peña in Miraflores. I thought at first that it was going to be awful, but after a few glasses of wine and a change of performers things really warmed up. One thing that fascinated me was the audience’s willingness to dance! The dance floor was quite small but they all crowed on to it – packed so closely that they could barely move. They were not at all like an English audience where everyone waits for someone else to start; they were up and at it straight away. The dance floor was raised by something like a metre and it seemed at times that some of them would fall off.

Anyway it was a spectacular. I shall only mention the best performances. The Mexican-like dancers, from the North of Peru. The girl with an incredibly large skirt, the man with a large straw hat (Marienda?) and both holding hankies. They snaked themselves around each other, in a manner that was both sexy and elegant. The scissors dancers were incredibly energetic. The scissors are very large and noisy and held in one hand. The two male dancers take turns and seem to compete to determine who can make the most noise and perform the most incredible physical acts whilst keeping the scissors going. The most memorable of all were the Creole dancers, negros from the south of Peru. They danced really well but they also performed some strange business with candles at the end of their act. A piece of card is tied to the rear end of a dancer and her partner tries to light it with a candle! The dancer regularly flicks the candle out with a toss of her layered skirt and it has to be relit. But in the end the trailing card is finally ignited and she dances with a flame on her tail. Then the audience joins in.

On Saturday night I was in a dilemma. I did not know what to do. I had witnessed the Chaccun show and the guide on my daylight explorations had told me that the peñas were much the same – at least in content. She suggested that I go to Parca Kennedy in Miraflores to see the dancing there. I did so, and it was good. In the centre of the park, a park surrounded by street vendors selling paintings, is a dell or circular depression. It is man-made of concrete in the form of a simple amphitheatre. It is not large, probably about three metres deep, whilst the floor which is used for dancing was about 10 meters in diameter. Someone had set up fairly powerful discotheque equipment on the stone seating and there you have it, baile al fresco, dancing in the air. The people here clearly loved to dance and everyone was smiling. Most people were watching; there wasn’t room for many on the concrete floor. The music was typical Latin American style which lends itself to dance and to the occasional encouraging shouts of ‘arriva’. The dancing didn’t seem particularly wild – but I was told that it became so later. As usual there was the usual great mixture of ages that I so admire in Hispanic cultures: from children to the elderly. I didn’t stay long. Watching dances fuelled by recorded music is not really my scene.

I found a café for a beer and watched people pass. Only one little girl approached me for money. Begging was clearly not encouraged there. The beer – Cusqena – was crap. There was another one called Cristal, and that was crap too. Interestingly the beer from the ‘pump’ is called Chop. All gaseous, cold stuff with the usual lagery excuse for taste. I decided to return to Barranco. In a magazine I had found a list of bars in the area and one was called the Bierhaus. That, I thought, must have some decent beer. I could not find a taxi driver who knew of it, or the street that it was in - though some pretended to know of it. In the end I found a yellow cab and got him to take me to Parca Municipale, which is in the centre of Barranco’s ‘viva nocturna’. During the journey in his clapped out, but licensed, yellow cab, I ascertained that he did know of the Bierhaus and he took me there. It was awful. Nearby there was a row of dubious disco bars in Sanchez Carrion beginning at the Avenida Grau and ending with the night club La Noche. I took one look and left – no decent beer there. The rest of the pubs in the street were just as bad and as I wandered around a dubious looking young man attached himself to me. He was clearly up to no good and had an accomplice. I made off to my ‘local’, Juanita’s. The landlord appeared to recognise me – but no-one spoke to me this time. The poor man with the guitar played and sang and occasionally the more besotted customers joined in. The man with the violin whom I had been told was rubbish (but isn’t) arrived. Feeling hungry, I left reasoning that I would be better served at the Estacion peña - the food at Juanita is hardly appetising especially when you spy a waiter rubbing a plate clean with a used tissue as he rescues the used crockery from a table. I asked the way, and suddenly everyone wanted to help! The landlord escorted me to the door and pointed to the correct street with two of his customers providing helpful comments in the background.

It was not far but I still got lost. Partly because I passed through the Parca Municpale where a large group of traditionally dressed musicians were playing and two dumpy young ladies in short fluffy traditional skirts were dancing. This pair then pulled men out of the crowd to join them – the men did not resist.

Lima people are very helpful so I soon found the peña. Not too many people there and there was a 40 sole cover charge. They served a very limited selection of food – snacky type stuff mainly – so I thought I had made a huge mistake, there goes Saturday night. The music didn’t start until around midnight, by which time the back of the stage had filled with, keyboard, guitar, base, three percussion and two background singers. All dressed for the part and waiting for the action to start. (Two of the percussionists sat on the simple box drums that I had seen at Chaccun’s. These instruments fascinated me. I later learned that they are called cajons and, some years later I acquired one of my own).

Then, suddenly, a little lady in a black trouser suit leapt onto the stage – and from that moment on we had non-stop entertainment. She was in her late forties and used a white hankerchief, partly as a prop, partly to constantly mop her brow. She danced, she sang, she shouted at the audience, she chatted with the musicians, she joked, she led the Creole dancers when they came on, she borrowed a cigarette from someone at the front to accompany a song, she stole someone’s fan to use as a prop (and as a fan). She even got me involved. She told me that I had come to the best show on earth. The Creole dancers were good, very good, two women and a man. One woman reminded me of someone from the Oxford Blues scene. She was very fat in her upper body, yet her legs were slim. She held up her skirt in a rather prissy way as she danced. She seemed to have trouble getting her body onto the stage – but then had trouble keeping her legs still. The musicians were also good – but they were all (happily I think) in the shadow of the leading lady. A lady who somehow got everyone involved such that everyone felt that she was singing or talking to them individually at some time during the show. She sang sad songs and fast songs. Sometimes she removed her shoes; sometimes she left the stage to join the audience. It fascinated me that all of the women joined in her songs towards the end, yet none of the men seemed to know the words! That evening was so good that I found myself dancing on the stage at the finale and afterwards talked to four ladies from Chiclayo, entirely in stuttered Spanish, and was the last guest to leave the place. I just wish that I knew the performer’s name.

I left in high spirits but picked up a problem taxi driver on the way back. He said the fare was eight soles, I said five. I thought that he had agreed on this but, when we got back, I gave him six and he then demanded the original eight. I paid up but left the taxi feeling very cross. Pathetic isn’t it, he got an extra 40p for what was quite a long journey.

My wife Margaret came over on the day after I had finished giving courses and I took her on an expensive ten day tour of Southern Peru. It was great. We visited all of the major attractions such as Machu Picchu, Lake Titicaca, and Cuzco. We returned to Lima on the 7th April and I had a clear goal in mind for Saturday night – another peña. A couple of my students had recommended Brisas de Titicaca, so I called the place. The number didn’t work. The woman in our hotel was not much help, she did not speak any English, but she finally connected me through to the owner of the hotel. He told me that nothing would be on. The elections were to be held the next day; all alcohol was banned for two days. He recommended going to a Miraflores restaurant for a nice meal. He told me that restaurants could serve booze. He was wrong on both accounts. The Mano Morenas in Barranco did take my booking. They did have a show and they were a restaurant. We arrived at ten. There were very few others there at that hour. We asked what they had to drink. No alcohol allowed they said – elections. I explained that we were British and therefore exempt. It didn’t work, still no alcohol. We ate a stomach stretching Creole mixed meal and washed it down with alcohol free Chicha Morena which is a bit like heavy Ribena.

Once again the music was great. A smaller group this time headed by the cajon drummer. The same dancers did most of the sets and at the end of the evening I was up there on the stage with a candle in my hand sober as a judge and trying to light some lady’s tail. We had to ask the taxi to wait, it was that good. Then they would not accept my credit card without a passport. I gave them my, well-expired SuzyQ snooker club card, which happened to have my photo on it. They were then quite happy with that!! We used the hotel taxi this time. I was not willing to take the chance of a random cab with Margaret at my side.

Margaret returned to England the next day and I headed north to Trujillo to visit a famous city made of mud. Great place Peru, but why, with so many resources, are they so poor? Could it be to do with those alcohol free elections?

These are simply some short pieces that I have written mostly for my own pleasure in the past. They may be a little rough, they are unedited. Enjoy.

Binsey Church
The final service at a tiny, yet famous, church on the edge of Oxford - or is it the end?

Binsey Church has always fascinated me. I have often told people the tale of Oxford's founder, Saint Frideswide: of her search for a suitable spot for her priory, the pursuit by King Algar, the lighting strike and the miraculous cure - effected by dripping water from a well into Algar's ruined eyes. "The well," I said confidently, "is still there, in the grounds of Binsey Church." And yet I had never been there. It was one of the places that I would visit sometime, I thought. A trip to anticipate and then to treasure - saved for some summer's day in the future when a Thames-side walk beckons one towards a pint at the Perch and onwards to the church and its treacle well.

Then, on Saturday night as I was about to leave my local pub, someone tripped me into action. "The last service in Binsey Church takes place tomorrow," he announced, "come along, three-thirty in the afternoon." This was a shocking announcement - I can assure you that it is not usual for drinkers at my local to invite anyone to a church service. Especially at throwing out time on a Saturday night!

I set out the next afternoon. It was dull, grey and overcast. As I turned my bicycle into Binsey Lane it began to rain. Cold droplets spattered onto by face and began to dampen my clothing. Binsey Lane is quite long - especially on a dreary Sunday afternoon. At last I passed the little cluster of buildings that surround the Perch pub then cycled on to the narrower lane that leads to the church. Narrow it certainly is - I had to stop to let a car pass by me then, faced with a group of approaching walkers, the car slowed to such an extent that I had to overtake it. Bicycle power rules in Binsey Lane.

The church is small and quaint. It is set amongst trees with a large farmhouse, very clearly marked as private, alongside it. To the left the by-pass could be seen - directing a constant and intrusive drone and a swish-swish of sound towards the churchyard as the cars rushed by on the wet roads. Where were all these drivers going on a miserable Sunday afternoon?

The doors of the church were open and the service had already started - hymn singing leaked from the darkened interior. I stood dithering on the threshold, staring into the candle lit gloom, trying to find somewhere to sit - wondering if this glimpse might be enough to satisfy my curiosity.  I could easily have turned around, left, returned to the warmth of my centrally heated, electrically lit home. The church is small, basic and was surprisingly crowded. It is intriguing that the final occurrence of something that is ending through lack of interest had attracted such a crowd. I slipped silently, hopefully unnoticed, into an empty pew and then stood listening to the singing whilst observing the vicar and surreptitiously trying to see just who would attend a Sunday service in this remote little church. Suddenly, someone appeared beside me. At first I thought he, like me, was a late comer, and that he wanted to stand in my pew. But he gave me a serious, knowing look, then thrust two books into my hand - both opened. I looked at the books and realised why this particular pew was empty. The sparse candlelight which provided the only illumination, was especially poor in this pew. The words of the hymnbook were distinguishable but unreadable. In a way I was relieved. It was impossible to join the singing.

What was I doing there - a convinced unbeliever, damp, freezing, with a book of psalms and book of hymns in my hand and a burgeoning cold in my body? Besides I had been there before, well, not there exactly, but in my childhood I had been made to go to church regularly on Sundays. The service seemed to be unchanged - hymns sung to tunes that I did not know, psalms that bristled with meaning but held no relevance for me, entreaties to fear a lord that I did fear as a small child, but soon ceased to believe in. I had often wondered why I had to go to church and my parents did not? This question made me long for adulthood. The prayers were familiar - burned into my brain by constant repetition at school assemblies. ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,’ popped up; I remembered that bit, I always liked it, and try to live by it - but that doesn't make me a Christian. Though boring as ever, there was still something magical about the last service conducted in this meagre, pretty little church dimly lit by candles.

Then it was over. Relieved but invigorated I overheard someone say to the vicar, "See you on Christmas Day." What? I had been misinformed! This was not the last service in Binsey Church - it was the last Sunday service to be held there. No matter.

To one side of the church I found the fabled well of St Frideswide and Lewis Carroll. It is rather lovely. The well itself is at the bottom of a short flight of steps. It is round and about two feet deep, lying beneath a fine stone arch which has an inscription to Frideswide upon it. I didn't take any of the curative water - I couldn't reach and was wet enough anyway.

Film Star for a Day
Travelling to Boston to appear in a film and the resultant resolve that made the film into a book

Never underestimate the power of the Web. Though agents and publishers had shown little interest in the book I was writing, a trailer hiding amongst the other dross on my web site led to a number of requests for copies – and an invitation to take part in a film! The book itself is about the technology patented by Hedy Lamarr (for younger readers she was a famous Hollywood star of the 30’s and 40’s) and her piano playing partner, George Antheil. It just happens that this technology powers the new generation of mobiles and the radio links that your computer may or may not use. What this stuff is, and how the devil an actress and piano player came to invent it, is what my book is all about.

To cut a long story short: Lisa Perkins sitting at her PC in Boston found my site, we chatted over email, I released the manuscript to her – and she invited me to the USA to appear in a documentary film that she is making about Hedy. Now I must quickly say that this is not going to be a Hollywood blockbuster, but Lisa and her group are serious filmmakers. Her previous creation was a one-hour documentary on Emily Dickinson, a poetess whose work many of you may know. It’s good - I have the video and enjoyed it though I knew little about Emily before seeing it.

Lisa picked me up at Boston airport and in the car we broke the ice by trading stories. She told me that she was renting out an apartment house somewhere in Boston. I told her of the trouble I had experienced when returning to the house that I had rented out to fund a Middle-East backpack trip. I described the cigarette burns in the carpet, the dirty walls, the detached towel rails, etc. In response she told me that there had been a shooting outside her rented house: one of the men had died, the other crawled wounded and bleeding into the upper apartment where his girlfriend lived. Lisa’s story put my cigarette burns into context and I felt that I had been ‘welcomed to America.’

Lisa lives in Cambridge, Mass and most of her circle is associated with Harvard University in some way or another. She had booked me into a B&B run by the wife of a Harvard professor, a lovely lady who insisted on sitting with me over breakfast and keeping up a non-stop conversation while I ate. Sounds awful, but was actually fun. The B&B was made entirely of wood, a typical Cambridge mansion sitting in its hilly garden and surrounded by dripping trees (it rained a lot – but who cares.)

I spent a puzzling, but entertaining, first evening meeting lots of people who may or may not have been part of the film team and being made much of - both as a visitor from England and an ‘expert’ on Hedy and her invention.

Next day I was taken to a Harvard laboratory where the filming was to take place. It was just across the road from Harvard’s impressive Memorial Hall (with its dining hall based on that of Christ Church in Oxford). The lab was like any lab; the equipment within it had little to do with Hedy and George’s invention, but it did have a blackboard and a few technical-looking instruments which gave the right ambience. After much arrangement of lights and microphones and cameras we were ready to go – and I felt scared. Was I really an expert? Most of you will know that the more you research the more you discover that you don’t know much at all. Facts fade into hearsay, accepted truth into downright lies. But all was OK when we got underway. My beautiful young interviewer, Tessa, a literature graduate who models clothes in Rome and is beginning a career as an actress in New York, was charming, informed and relaxing. I spoke at length and with animation, hopefully not repeating the robotic video performances I used to turn in during my technical years. The crew was pleased, they too had been scared; after all they had taken a terrible chance in bringing me to America. I was, after all, a complete stranger from England whose only qualification was to have written an unpublished book on the topic of their film.

Later in the day we did another session. This was filmed in someone’s garden, the wooden terrace done out to look like a bar. They even gave me beer! I was in my element. Here I talked with a man I had been dying to meet. Paul Lehrman had made a film about George Antheil and his crazy, but oh so fascinating, composition ‘The Ballet Mecanique’ – music for 16 pianolas, 3 aeroplane propellers, a siren and god knows what else. We discussed the invention and Hedy and George’s contribution to it. We also speculated upon how it was possible that they could come up with such a startling idea when neither one seemed to have had a technical bone in their body. As the filming progressed it was regularly interrupted by low flying helicopters for some mysterious reason. The interruptions gave me time to reflect: “This isn’t work,” I thought, “sitting here drinking beer in this lovely garden, chatting to a fascinating man and encouraged to do so by a beautiful young actress – this is the ultimate skive.”

The filming was completed on the first day, though they had allowed three. Everyone congratulated me, and they all congratulated each other. I visited Harvard on one of the spare days and went to Lexington to see an old friend from my technical days on another. I spent the last evening on the town with Lisa, my delightful producer and then, next day, back to Blighty.

I don’t know whether the film will ever see the light of day or how little of my bit will be included, but I really did enjoy the trip. Something about working in a familiar but slightly alien environment and amongst creative people, I suppose. This film business is a little like writing, but so much more a team venture. I liked Harvard, I liked the people that I met and I liked being a ‘film star.’ And the whole thing re-enthused me about my book. Spread Spectrum: Hedy Lamarr and the Mobile Phone. I determined that it would be published even if I had to do it myself. And I did it.

Eric's Grave
A visit to George Orwell's resing place. A matter of homage and appreciation of a master of words and wonder.

We approached Sutton Courtenay from the South, partly by mistake. It is not the best approach. The place is one of those Oxfordshire villages that are clearly divided into the haves and have nots, the old and the new, the stylish and the utilitarian. At first we could not find the church. We did find a church but not the church. This one was the catholic church which is in the "other" part of Sutton Courtenay. It is a newish building and fairly utilitarian. It was clearly not the correct one since it did not have a churchyard.

Finding ourselves at an intersection we thought that the village had ended. We took the left turning towards Drayton and were soon out into the flat Oxfordshire countryside. This did not feel right so I reversed and retraced our path back to the intersection. This time we went straight on and we found Sutton Courtenay proper. This was a place that lived up to its name. The average price of the cars parked at this end of the village were, we guessed, roughly double those in the other part and house prices roughly treble. And there was the church - nestling between two attractive pubs and overlooking an extensive and well-kept village green bordered with expensive, low-level chain and post fencing.

The church was rather nice, though unfortunately locked so that we could not view the interior which was a pity. It is remarkably close to the second pub, a Morland's house with some ivy covering and painted in a dark yellow colour. The church is built of stone but has an unusual red brick porch. The porch looks very old, perhaps considerably older than the grey stone church itself. Above the doors was a sandstone plaque and within it the eroded spine of some creature or perhaps a sandstone replica of a snake's skeleton. I have no idea what that was all about.

The weather was good, though the week had been one of those typically fractious ones when you are never sure whether to carry sunglasses or an umbrella. The tennis at Wimbledon had been interrupted many times by rain and Tim Henman, England's great hope and a native of these parts had just been knocked out of the finals. People who take an interest in such things were feigning disinterest now that they had no countryman to support.

The graveyard was extensive and I did think that we might search it systematically. But my wife had already begun an independent search using some technique which looked quite random to me but I am sure was following some logic of her own invention. I identified a likely section and began to walk from grave to grave following the, roughly, straight lines. I could miss out some of the graves since they were clearly modern, many of sported fresh flowers so people were still being buried here. Some of the names on the older graves were indecipherable, which was worrying. Some of the graves had a complete surround but most consisted of a simple headstone. As always some of them make sad reading, especially the painfully early demise of children.

My wife's random trail was heading towards my own linear sweep and I noticed out of the corner of my eye that she was stationary. I looked up and she pointed to a particular stone.

"Here it is," she called, with the very slightest tinge of triumph in her voice.

"I wanted to find it," I said grumpily as I approached.

"I know, I'm sorry," she lied, and we smiled. I knew that she would find it first somehow. But he is my hero not hers.

The headstone was fairly plain, half rounded. The grave did not have a surround. The carved letters were quite clear - Here lies Eric Arthur Blair, Born June 25th 1903, Died January 21st 1950. Many people visit this churchyard looking for the grave of George Orwell and go away disappointed. There is no mention of his pen name on the stone.

The grave itself has two slender rose bushes growing from it, The one nearest the headstone is a deep red, the other is white with some interesting pink striping. The striping, my wife informed me, is probably caused by a virus - how romantic. Beneath the rose bushes the ground was cultivated but sprouting with weeds.

"Someone must look after the grave," I said to my wife.

"The weeds are perennials and need digging out," she said practically. She was right, they were mostly dandelion and buttercup.

"All the same I think I would like to clear it," I said kneeling down and commencing to pull up what I could of the weeds before they overgrew the grave of the man who I regard as the greatest English writer of the twentieth century. Silly as it was, it seemed the least I could do for all of the pleasure he had given me. I began to list the titles of his books as I worked.

" Burmese Days, Down and Out in London and Paris, The Clergyman's Daughter, Coming up for Air,………"

"I'll dead head the roses," said my wife. Later she also did a little weeding.

We hadn't realised that he had died so young. I am already eight years his senior and hope to see a lot more years yet. I have read almost everything that he wrote, including the collections of newspaper articles. I was introduced to him by George Woodcock's book, "Crystal Spirit" and my subsequent reading led to me to agree wholeheartedly with George's title. I have read Animal Farm aloud to each of my four children, at least once. And I never tired of the story and the writing.  Snowball in particular became a family icon. I am sure that Orwell's writings on the English language have improved my own writing, and I am grateful.

I could not recall why he had ended up in Stanton Harcourt rather than the Isle of Jura where he spent his latter days, or in the counties of East Anglia with which I associate his pen name and a good stretch of his life. He made many audio recordings of the people of that region in order to preserve the way of agricultural life style before it gave way to mechanisation. We presumed that he was too ill to stay on the island that he lived. Then my wife found the much more impressive tomb of Herbert Asquith and we recalled that there was some link here.

Later I found that Eric Blair had died in London. The choice of Sutton Courtenay as burial place was somewhat arbitrary. He wanted to be buried in a country churchyard though he was certainly not a religious man in the conventional sense. He had a friend in Violet Asquith, who had been director of the BBC and this influenced the choice of All Saints Church in Sutton Courtenay as the place of burial.

It is fifty-two years since Eric died, I suspect that he is much better known than his friend's father, Herbert Henry Asquith, even though that man became the leader of this nation for a while. I also suspect that Eric's grave receives many more visitors and will continue to do so as long as the books of George Orwell are enjoyed. As far as I am concerned that will be forever.

In an essay entitled "Why I Write" he compiled a list of reasons, presumably in order of importance. The first reason is: "Sheer egotism. Desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death, to get your own back on grown-ups who snubbed you in children, etc. etc." Well, he certainly achieved his aim.

July 6th 2002

PS Afterwards we went to Little Wittenham by car and then by foot across the Thames to Dorchester to visit the Abbey. For some reason it was not so impressive as the little church in Sutton Courtenay. We then walked to Burcot and onwards to re-cross the Thames at Clifton Hampden. We enjoyed a pub meal and a few pints of Ruddles in Long Wittenham then walked back to the car. But, the high point of the day was definitely Eric's grave. And now I want to go to Jura.

Travelling Times
Apply Moore's Law to travel with some interesting conclusions

Idly scratching my forehead on the kerbside in downtown Lima, Peru only to find a host of scrap cars charging towards me, each with TAXI hand painted on them.

Standing above the Iguisudani station in Tokyo, trying to convince myself that the precision movement of trains below me is not actually that of an electric train set.

Abandoning a colleague, in order to take the subway, in Place Rouppe, Brussels where his car had been completely gridlocked for over quarter of an hour.

Almost missing a wedding because the Barcelona to London flight took eight hours rather that two, the “computer system was down.”

In my own trade one of the most quoted rules of speed is Moore’s Law. This simply claims that the speed of computers doubles every eighteen months. It is not accurate, but it’s not far out.

As you can see from this chart taken from the Intel Web site, Moore’s Law actually addresses the number of transistors in a processor. Gordon Moore was a founder of the Intel company that supplies most of the processors used in PC’s. It is this company that has supplied many of the innovations that have made his law a reality. In fact Gordon first penned the law in 1965, before Intel itself had been formed.

What if Moore’s Law applied to travel? Let’s take as an example a motor car journey between the two great capitals: London and Edinburgh.  We will go back in time to 1965, the year that Moore’s Law was born and the year that the Beatles released Help! Let’s assume that the mid-sixties’ car could travel at an average speed of 50 kph. In that case our 1965 traveller would complete the journey in around 20 hours. Now let’s fast forward to today. After 36 years we would have experienced 20 doublings of speed. So, if Moore’s Law applied to travel as it does to computing then the journey between the two capitals should take just 4 thousandth of a second and our traveller would be streaking along at just over 800 million kph! Ridiculous.

Of course Moore’ Law is itself ridiculous. Nothing can carry on growing at the incredible rate that Gordon predicted. In fact the law’s creator delivered a lecture a few years ago that said just that. He suggested that an end was in sight to the rapid increase in transistor density and that this would occur sometime around 2017 - famous last words from a famous predictor. But the date itself is not that important. Nature abhors unlimited exponential growth, just as it abhors a vacuum. Something will limit the complexity of computer technology, even if we do exploit technologies beyond semiconductors.

But is this travel comparison so ridiculous? What is it that actually limits the speed of physical travel? Returning to the journey from London to Edinburgh, it is of course possible to take a plane. In that case you will get there after a short flight of one and a quarter hours. Of course, it is quite possible that planes will get faster - but we do meet a noisy barrier here, the sound barrier. Concorde was banned from entering supersonic speeds overland many years ago and there is no reason to think that that ban will be rescinded. Rocket travel faces similar problems and will always be impractical for short journeys, though it is very likely to become an option for the very long flights, London to Sydney perhaps.

There is another limit to physical speed, though it’s not one that we need worry too much about for some time. This is, of course, the ultimate speed limit - the speed of light. Einstein and many other physicists tell us that strange things begin to occur as we approach this incredible speed and that they all conspire to prevent us ever reaching it. Interestingly enough Moore’s Law when applied to that journey from London to Edinburgh predicts that we should meet this limit half way through 2001, it occurs at around about 1,000 million kph.

And therein lies the very good reason for mixing up the worlds of physical travel and the microchip. In fact we can reach Edinburgh in about three thousands of a second! We do it regularly when we use the telephone. All right, all right, for those expert readers amongst you, the signals do not actually travel at the speed of light - but it’s near enough.

This brings me to a question that is a regular chestnut. Who would want to travel when they have all the power of the computer, of telecommunications and the Internet at their fingertips? Who would want to travel at subsonic speeds when they can travel at the speed of light? This is a question that has been asked many times before, and yet people still travel. But everything changes. We need to clear our minds of all the well-trodden answers and look again. The turn of the century has brought some previously distant things into sharper focus.

Why, for example, did I have to face all those scrap cars parading as taxis in Lima? It takes around 20 hours to fly to the place anyway - and then you have to brave the taxi drivers and their pimps. Why not stay at home? Well firstly I was there to work, teaching local people about the coming generation of mobile phone technology of all things. There was twenty of them and just one of me, so I do the travelling, simple economics. But why couldn’t I use today’s technology in order to project myself, at the speed of light, into the meeting room? First, the room had no high-speed connection, second, I have no high-speed connection at my end and third, none of us believe that it will work as well. And while the latter is the case the former will not be fixed.

And did I really need to travel to Japan just to experience the efficiency of its railways? Of course not, in fact I could probably get a more balanced impression by watching a good documentary programme on the subject. But I travelled to Japan for a number of reasons. One was to see how the Japanese use mobile phones, another was to experience a culture that I have always found puzzling. To that end I stayed in a Ryokan - a traditional Japanese hotel where I was individually served the most complex and dainty meal of my life, sitting on the floor dressed in a traditional robe and overjacket. I also experienced the hotel’s hot springs and the delight of sleeping on the floor. It is difficult to imagine how I could experience all of this at the speed of light - but not entirely impossible.

And then there is my one experience of absolute gridlock in Brussels. For all I know the man that we left behind, the poor car driver, is still there. We managed to steer our luggage through the narrow gaps between stationary cars, we did not die of asphyxiation from the hundreds of car exhausts in that car locked square and we made it just in time to board the Eurostar at Gare Du Nord. We were in Brussels to judge a competition - a competition for the best-integrated call centre in Europe. Could we not have used the technology that we were judging to do the job remotely? Well it’s possible, but since we insist on operating the call centre ourselves it would not have been so effective. And we would certainly have missed out on the delightful Belgian Beer supplied by the competitor to sharpen our judgmental skills.

And why do we need to rush to weddings, only to find that the “computer” has trashed our careful travel plans? Why does the ticketing computer affect the flight times anyway? Is technology taking over; slowing us down rather than speeding it up? But it was only a wedding. We could have watched the video.  Given easily available technology we could have watched it live - and even made a remote speech. All that we would then miss is the food and drink at the reception. The money we would save by not travelling would have bought an awful lot of food and drink of course, but the essence of a wedding reception lies in something more than just food and drink. We would certainly miss the arbitrary meeting with old and new friends and, in this particular case, the experience of lying on my hotel bed at three in the morning with two other drunks, telling corny jokes and drinking tea.

These are simple examples, you can add to them. Technology is moving forward apace. Moore’s Law drives on relentlessly. New ideas and new technology do not appear quite as spontaneously as people remote from technological developments imagine - but they do occur. We are developing a broadband world where many things will be available at very high speed. The mobile world is in transition itself and the next generation will deliver video capability, location based services and so forth. The question now is this, with what we know of those developments will physical travel be gradually replaced by travel at the speed of light?

Science fiction has explored most of those developments for us. You may recall the film The Fly, remade a few years ago and much more horrifying than the original which haunted me as a child. In The Fly the main character has invented a teleportation machine. Details of the machine are sketchy of course, but the general idea is that you are broken down into elements that can be successfully transmitted at the speed of light. At the receiver you are then reformed - with disastrous results if a fly happens to be with you in the transmitter. Is this so far fetched? Not really. It is already possible to analyse an inanimate object and create it at some remote spot. The result may not be a perfect copy, but the fact that it can be done is enough for now.

A few years ago I investigated virtual reality. It was great, but certainly not very real. This scene has been a little quiet for a while, but it will be back and it will be better. And in the end it may well be possible to experience a Japanese Ryokan without actually going to Japan. And it will include the tastes of the food and the exhilaration of the hot springs.

That these things will come I have no doubt. I also have little doubt that they will become practical in this century. Moore’s Law will make it so. Will travelling at the speed of light be as good as the “real thing?” The ingredient that it may lack is arbitrariness. I found my Japanese Ryokan after a series of interesting accidents. We often get to talk to other people by arbitrarily being in the same space - the chance meeting at a wedding for example. We can learn a lot about the way people really live in another culture by arbitrarily travelling with a loquacious cab driver in Lima, Peru. Virtual arbitrariness may prove the killer application of an environmentally friendly world where technology has removed the reason to physically travel.

The neglected hedgecutter
Strange tale of a a strange man who purports to repair garden machinery yet seems uninclined to do so

The place that I go to in North Oxfordshire has been repairing lawn mowers and other garden implements for nearly 30 years. Sometimes I think that machines that were brought in for repair all those years ago are still there.

I bought my hedgecutter from the owner some four years ago. He gave me a lot of advice about it, particularly warning me against the use of stale petrol - a point that few people appreciate. The thing never started well. It became an alternative to planned physical exercise. On the days that I had to use it I could forswear press ups and jogging. Getting that thing started exhausted me - mentally and physically. Then, one day in the early summer of last year, it refused to start entirely. I did all the usual things: crossing my fingers, whispering encouragements to it before I pulled the cord, swearing at it as the sweat began to pour from my face, turning my back on it, leaving it to suffer alone in the middle of the lawn. Nothing worked. So, I took to back to the man who sold it to me. He wanted me to do so. He stuck a big yellow label on it when I bought it. The label had his name and address and telephone number firmly emblazoned on it. I was puzzled at the time. After all I had bought the ting yet he seemed to be taking possession. All became clear when he said, "That's to ensure that you get priority treatment if you should have to return this appliance for repair - I always look after my own customers first."

He was busy when I deposited the dead hedgecutter at his Chipping Norton premises. There was no time for the usual lecture on starting procedures and stale petrol. He simply wrote out a tie on label with the problem and my details on it. He then told me that it would be ready soon and that he would call me when it was. I left feeling happy and confident, this man, I felt, had a feel for garden machines - and mine, as one of his own, would be given priority and respect.

The summer wore on, but there was no word from the hedgecutter man. Still, I never did like cutting the hedge much and besides, there's not much of it nowadays - we have downsized a little in recent years by selling a big house and buying two little ones. Besides, the hedgecutter was in good hands. Autumn arrived and the top of the hedge was crying out for a clipping. I went to see the hedgecutter man. It was a Saturday, around midday; he was closing and did not look at all happy. I told him, rather apologetically I fear, about the long awaited call and my much-missed hedgecutter. He responded by saying that he had been very busy, but it would be ready next week. I went away feeling quite hopeful, he did speak as if he knew the whereabouts of my particular implement, as if it was on his mind and he would soon get to work on it. Weeks passed and there was no call. The season passed and the time for hedge cutting passed with it. Then we entered a new year and I began to miss my hedgecutter. A new year heralds spring, the bursting of buds and the rapid growth of leaves - where was my hedgecutter? I set off to the shop; well it isn't really a shop; just a few sheds, a yard and a collection of lock up skips.

As I got out of the car I could hear some appliance or another roaring away in the garden just beyond the sheds. I went into the shed marked "Office"; there was no one about. I shouted, nothing, no response. I went outside again, the roaring appliance had stopped now; a leaf blower lay abandoned on the lawn of the garden behind the shed. I walked towards it, expecting that the lawnmower man would be nearby. As I turned the corner I could see him. He had his back to me and seemed to be examining the flowerbed. He is a short man and always wears a cap. He turned towards me and I could see that he was fiddling with something near his crotch. "Ah, caught short," he said without smiling. I laughed and was grateful that he did not offer to shake hands.

I asked if my hedgecutter was ready - there was a swift inward suck of breath. We toured the skips looking for it - without success. He was sure it was "somewhere". I asked him if he could please tell me when it would be ready. He said, "No." Just like that, "No."

We returned to the office, heads down. He explained to me that he and his wife had recently divorced. He described the settlement in some detail. Apparently judges nowadays have the sense to favour small businesses and to leave them in the hands of the lead partner. This was especially important because small businesses, such as his, provide employment. He then said that he was now a reborn teenager, his faded blue eyes stared suspiciously at me over his half-lensed glasses, looking for the slightest smile of doubt. He was now going dancing, "which gives me the chance for a bit of a cuddle." What all this had to do with my hedgecutter I did not know, but he was working slowly towards that. He explained that no one wanted to work as a fitter in his business any more. They wanted to work on motor cars - which paid better. But those in the car business wanted to work on lorries because that paid even more. And those on the lorries wanted to work on JCBs because that paid a fortune and you were on call - with even more money for call outs. But, then came the big problem, those working on JCBs were fed up. They were working 365 days a year, had no time for family or time to spend their money. I suggested that they might come to work with him on garden machinery - but no, the money's no good. There was a moral here and it was clearly my own fault if I couldn't see it. Besides he was better without staff. If, after a night's dancing, he felt like a lie-in. he had one. No one to come and open up for in the mornings, so he was his own man. If he wanted to work until ten at night then that was up to him, but I guess with all the dancing he just didn't feel so inclined

Much to my relief the reason why my hedgecutter was not ready was obliquely addressed again - he had been working on his books since the week before Christmas - roughly four weeks of work apparently. He had a lady helping him - his eyes twinkled a little a he said this. "A little romance there," I ventured. He almost smiled, something he always avoids as if it might waste a moment in which he could speak. "Possibly, possibly,” he replied guardedly, “But she is getting on a bit, good in every other respect, but getting on a bit."

He felt the need to explain the reasons for his divorce. Apparently he and his wife were both so involved with the business that they had ceased to take any interest in each other. The parting was amicable: he kept the business and the property, about two acres of prime land right on the edge of a desirable Cotswold town. She took the cash. And here he has a problem. The accounts lady is getting on a bit and he rather fancies a younger model. But they might be after his money. If he sold his land for housing he could be worth a fortune, and the younger model might then walk away, with half the loot. I opined that if I didn't go soon I might be faced with a divorce. My long-suffering wife was waiting in the car.

He accompanied me as I walked towards it, telling me that my model of hedgecutter was always a bad one to start, the Mark II was much better, it flooded the engine before starting. Then he decided that the problem was that I was keeping the cutter in a shed which was too cold in the winter and too hot in the summer. I intervened to say that I kept it in a garage but this was ignored. We reached the car, and he began to tell me yet more about the dancing and his new nightlife. My wife looked depressed, even the dog, sitting in the back of my car, was looking fed up. At last I managed to find a small gap in the monologue in which to say I had to go, must get back to Oxford, please to call me when the hedgecutter is ready. I dashed into the car before he could begin a new chapter. We had been talking, sorry he had been talking, for almost an hour. With his skills I'm sure that he could fix two hedgecutters in that time. Blimey, he could have fixed mine!

Four months later I returned to retrieve the hedgecutter, it was still untouched, dust covered and neglected. The man was uncharacteristically silent. He gave me a brief look that implied disloyality and a lack of confidence in his ability to repair the thing before marching off. It still doesn’t start.