Ian Whybrow

…coming soon…

June 5th, 2015. Peeps over the edge

June 5, 2015 - Filed under: Blog - Leave a comment

I’m reading “The Three of Us” by Julia Blackburn. I knew Thomas Blackburn, her father, in the sixties when I was training to be a teacher, as one of a group of men who taught me English. In the formal sense he was a hopeless teacher but just by being what he was, he made a great impact on me.

For a start, he was a poet and came with a reputation as winner of the Leeds Poetry Prize – and his brother was a writer of detective novels! This was the real thing. Tom was absent-minded and repeated himself; he was ill-prepared and made rambling, obscure observations about writers that made note-taking impossible – and for a ramshackle student like myself, mercifully unnecessary. He often wandered in to a lecture theatre forgetting who he he was supposed to be teaching. Some people were annoyed by this but I was fascinated by him. I felt myself in the presence of an artist who lived life on a superior plane. He felt what Conrad felt, it seemed to me. “He’d peeped over the edge himself, d’you see?” he would urge, working his lower lip.” He had seen THE HORROR! Temendrous!” He introduced us to Larkin, making us all jump by reciting what your mum and dad do to you without meaning to and thundered out, pounding on the table to keep time (as I often did later in my classes) Vachel Lindsay’s “Congo”:

Fat black bucks in a wine-barrel room

Barrel house kings with feet unstable

Sagged and reeled and POUNDED on the table

Beat an empty barrel with the handle of a broom …

BOOMLAY-BOOMLAY- BOOMLEY BOOM!

Somehow, if Tom stamped a writer as “temendrous”, you felt he or she was worth taking seriously. He knew other “temendrous” poets and introduced them to us – often in pubs and accompanied by jazz. Lots of them were as fascinatingly other-worldly and unpredictable as he was – Stevie Smith, Michael Horovitz and his colleague and fellow lecturer, the almost blind John Heath-Stubbs. One rubbed shoulders with and spilled brown ale on the likes of Danny Abse and Jeremy Robson, Dom Moraes and Peter Porter and in that way, my lifelong pleasure in poetry took root. I have to admit that I struggled to enjoy Tom’s poems but I remember with admiration how much himself he seemed to be as he delivered them, particularly “Hospital for Defectives” – a reflective piece inspired by his having seen a warder knocking about mentally disabled men who had been put to work in a field, grubbing up turnips.

What Julia’s remarkable memoire reveals is just how defective, not to say bonkers the poor chap was himself, how damaged by his mad missionary dad who made him wear a steel clip on his penis at night to prevent nocturnal emissions and to deter erotic dreams; how misguided by his long-term Freudian analyst; how unfortunately matched he was to his three long-suffering and equally needy wives; how wildly bohemian his life actually was. I mean, a fling with Francis Bacon? – and him a fully paid up womaniser. Blimey.

I was far too bourgeois to have any idea of what was really going on in Tom’s life although later in mine I did tow my wife along to meet him and Peggy, his third. Now Julia, in her affectionate way has allowed me a precious and fascinating peep over the edge into his private universe. To her – as I shall always be to him – I am deeply grateful.

May 17th, 2015 Surprised (twice) – and not by joy

May 17, 2015 - Filed under: Blog - Leave a comment

So there I was this morning, on my customarily gentle early morning jog above the river bend and the rumbling weir, slapping gently down the hill, half a mile from where the lovely soft-red row of tied cottages leans dutifully towards the tiny, perfect church and green yewy graveyard at Liston. I passed the pond with its solitary tooting coot on my right; and the picture-box blue and white clapboarded mill house on my left. And I’d crossed the Weak Bridge a few paces before the official border between Essex and Suffolk. It’s nice to cross two counties under your own steam.

Suddenly a heron skimmed low over my head and knocked the breath out of me. I’ve never been so close to a heron’s undercarriage.

Moments later, ruminating upon a short ditty to celebrate the moment, I followed the river, admiring the dazzling white of may blossom, cow parsley, dead-nettle and campion, half- thinking to myself that you never see white campion in Herefordshire and idly watching for ducks. As I approached the elbow where the river turns under another bridge and cuts along towards Sudbury I noticed (needing to squint because the sun comes right at you at that time of day) a figure restraining a spaniel and clinging to a paper bag.

“Just the one duck, then,” I said and the man nodded mournfully. The dog pulled at its leash – not towards me but back along the road towards the weir. It was then I had my second heart- thumping shock of the morning. A tall athletic looking girl in full be-tighted, body-hugging pink and purple gear was power-walking behind me, elbowing aside midges and a slight head-wind. She was gaining fast. The humiliation!

Foolishly I put on a spurt towards Long Melford high street, pursued by cracking gorgon steps, terrified that I should be overtaken, not just by a girl but by a walker!

Near Miss (1)

By the Weak Bridge at Liston

A heron skimmed my shining crown.

No doubt he took it for a pond.

Sorry was I to let him down.

 

Near Miss (2)

How foolish that a septuagenarian

Should feel an impulse so barbarian.

Still, risking death, I spurted, ran like hirl,

Rather than be o’ertaken by a walking girl.

May Bank Holiday 2015. Et in Arcadia …

May 5, 2015 - Filed under: Blog - Leave a comment

This morning I staggered up the lane in my droopy track suit trousers and ludicrous (high risiblity?) yellow day-glow jacket towards Lyonshall. It was pleasantly warm and sunny, but crisp enough for a jog past swathes of jack-by-the hedge, campion, bluebells and cuckoo-flowers – and blow me – a cuckoo called in gentle, encouraging mockery. Bliss. And it triggered some lovely memories.

I’d almost forgotten that Ben Kingsley and Frances de la Tour played Helena and Demetrius in the Aldwych run of Peter Brook’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 1971 but certainly not that Sarah Kestelman played Titania because I was sitting on the end of the second or third row of the stalls – and when the cast came leaping down into the auditorium at the end of the show, she kissed me like a long lost friend. I was already weeping with happiness.

Yesterday’s mesmerizing edition of The Reunion on Radio 4 brought together those four remarkable people along with Barry Stanton who, as Snug the Joiner had got into the team-spirit of the production and insisted on making his own prop, a wooden lion’s head, in a joinerly style, along the lines of a chest of drawers.

The two greatest theatrical experiences of my life were being part of this and of Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia – and I associate both with our daughter Lucy. She was a few weeks’ old – so it must have been in November or early December 1971 that we nearly missed the Dream. She was crying so heartbreakingly as Ann and I tried to galvanise ourselves for a rendezvous with Doug and Patsie Flett who were driving us from Harrow on the Hill to the West End in their new car ( we didn’t own one) that by 6.45 we had weakened to the point of abandoning the idea of an outing. At the crucial moment, enter Sarita Crook, our dauntless landlady (we were renting the butler’s annexe of her house). She grabbed Lucy, reminding us that she had, in spite of her genteel upbringing in Poona, plenty of experience of mollifying distressed babies and shooed us into the car.

Even in those days, three quarters of an hour to drive to the Aldwych, park and take our seats was pushing it. We arrived, pale, grim, silent, with a minute to spare. That is to say that, having dropped off the ladies outside the theatre, Doug drove off with me to look for a parking space and when we arrived (panting) in the foyer at 7.38, maroon rope barriers had been drawn across the entrances. Miraculously, the curtain hadn’t gone up, as we could see on a tv monitor – but – we were not to know it – in order to inject the burst of energy that Brooks demanded, the entire cast was poised to gallop through the auditorium and leap on to the stage with a roar and a burst of song. A uniformed attendant raised a staying hand and informed us that nobody would now be allowed to enter until the end of Act I. “Bugger this!” cried Douglas (he had spent formative years in Australia). I agreed and we hurdled the barrier and made our own entrance. We had suffered too much to be thwarted at this point. We piled into our seats hotly pursued down the aisles by a galloping mob of nobs, fairies and hard-handed mechanicals. Fantastic!

And that was just the beginning of the most breathtakingly inventive, hair-raisingly exciting, touching and hilarious, tricksy and athletic, thought-provoking, life-affirming ensemble stage-pieces I ever experienced. No eye has ever heard, no ear has ever seen, no hand has tasted, or tongue felt, or heart described what that Dream was like.

My hair was similarly up and down like the quills upon your fretful porpentine in May 1994 while Ann and I sat watching our Lucy playing Thomasina in Trevor Nunn’s production at The Haymarket. Stoppard has never written anything better – and I can’t think of a more moving role for a young actress, apart from Juliet, which – I still can hardly believe this – she actually got to play at the Theatre Royal Stratford. One glowed with pride, my dear.

But back to Arcadia. Imagine: a sensitive, slightly deranged prodigy, Thomasina weeps real tears for the destruction of the library at Alexandria; she spends a good many of her waking hours working out iterated algorithms in her head, and falls madly in love with a handsome, thoroughly decent young toff. What a role! What more could proud parents wish for their daughter? In the brilliant final scene, her 18th ghost whirls round with her lover in a dance with the 20th century inheritors of the English country house where the play is set. The music of time danced before our very eyes.

These things are part of us – not just precious memories, but as Peter Brook put it yesterday, part of our DNA, our heart, our soul.

I’ve just found a snippet of a review. Lucy Whybrow’s charming prodigy, as ingenuously radiant over her discovery of kissing as of fractal geometry (as she is over falling in love), cries, ‘We must hurry if we’re going to dance’. Good advice, that.

April 6th 2015 Travelling Pullman-class and Gee-class

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On one of our recent trips between Harrow and Herefordshire, Ann and I stopped off at Ledbury for lunch. Always a pleasure to take a stroll along the familiar lively high street there and pop into a deli or a bric a brac shop. We climbed the few steps into The Horseshoe, a fine old black-and-white pub with its own wood-fired pizza oven and found ourselves, that Monday noonish, not among a scattering of drinkers but among a chattering crowd of crafts-people, knitting away, sewing, quilting.

While we were waiting for our order, we flicked through the Telegraph off the rack and had a chat about what been listening to in the car – Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights, a free gift on Audible. We’d both enjoyed the Oxford scenes and admired the telling and the production (Pullman is a superb narrator) and the variety of characters but had grown impatient with the punch ups between the witches and the bears. We agreed that as always with a fantasy, if anything can happen, it will, so it begins to stretch out like French knitting. And we had both got a bit bogged down looking for parallels in the allegory. Who ARE these bears? what IS this blinkin dust? how does this all relate to Paradise Lost? what would a ten year-old get out of this? All the usual stuff. It didn’t stop me being curious enough to want to go on with the rest of the trilogy having downloaded it – but Ann put her foot down. She’d had enough.

A chap on a table nearby who was working on an elaborate tapestry (of an orchid, it turned out, with the canvas pattered like a close-up of an Ordnance Survey map by some computerised process and requiring thousands of stitches – a year’s work at least) segued into the conversation with the graceful ease of somebody who enjoys a chat with strangers – and enthused about the book. He also recommended “The Mysteries of Glass” by Sue Gee. He had spent many years in Oxford as a parson and had recently gone with a book group walking where it’s set – up on to Rushock Hill, along the lane from Bullock’s Mill and to the church at Lyonshall – all of which Ann and I have known for twenty years or more – so I got hold of the book and have enjoyed enormously. Familiarity with the topography – and being taken on an imaginary journey along the high street of Kington in 1860 – are not the only things to enjoy in this powerful book, far from it. It’s remarkably sensuous book, full of bird-sound and animal-calls and the tensions of misty woods; sensitive to the trials of a young curate eager to emulate his dedicated father but stumbling among the pitfalls of jealousy and spite and cruelty and self-disgust because of his yearning for the troubled young wife of a the dry-as-dust vicar who has fallen seriously ill. This book deals with yearning and hypocrisy and wavering faith as Trollope did, but unconstrained by the conventions of his age.

Two serious books asking the big questions. So far I prefer being led to them along paths I’ve trodden myself and in familiar human company rather than in the company of daemons. I feel the imagined numbing cold of an English winter even in the mid-19th century more painfully than I do the Northern snows of Pulman’s metaphysical fiction. Still, I will bone up on Mr P’s dust.

March 29th, 2015. Considering Cats

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Considered Christopher Smart’s cat Jeffrey for about five hours yesterday afternoon and evening; him, Benjamin Britten, The Little Organ Mass by Haydn  and Rutter’s Magnifi …cat. That’s two cats, then; three if you count a cat…echism.

The occasion was the Spring concert for the Harrow Choral at our local Arts Centre. A final rehearsal with the orchestra is always an exhausting business – but absorbing. Getting to hear the pieces we’ve been rehearsing for so long slotting in with orchestra and soloists: that’s always a treat.

Have to admit that for months during rehearsals I hated Britten’s treatment of the Christopher Smart fragment from Jubilate Agno. However, having got to grips with Britten’s mad syncopations and rushing phrases – and thrilled to the celebration of the soprano soloist’s interpretation of how a cat can worship in his own way – turning seven times or simply being still – I have come to love it.

I confess to having been stuck with the stubborn thought that the music simply got in the way of the poetry. I’ve never met a poem before that hasn’t suffered at the hands of a composer. I also sensed wrongly that Britten was patronising Smart, even taking the mickey out of a poor, mad inmate of an asylum. But as the piece unfolded and revealed itself in its full orchestral glory; and with a beautiful, soaring palpable sense of the individuals in the choir coming together at last to feel the music, we discovered, I think, how Britten’s music does illuminate the poetry of Smart, runs with it, laughs with it, reveals the composer’s wonder at the unexpected truth and beauty of mad thoughts and perceptions.

From now on, I shall be considerin’ a few more things a bit more closely.

But today, I are mostly considerin hooverin.

March 27th 2015 Of Meerkats and Men

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I’d forgotten that yesterday was publication-day for a new picture book. “That Naughty Meerkat” it’s called and it follows on from a series of children’s novels beginning with “Meerkat Madness”. Furry-chested, yes; but not exactly hairy-chested titles. Still, I remember that years ago my first picture book that I had entitled “This Little Baby” was launched as “Quacky Quack-Quack!” and how tortured I was at the time about having to explain myself at parties. “A writer, eh? So what IS your latest book…?”

Ah well, the consolation is that mums, aunties, grannies and elder sisters like ducks and meerkats – and they’re the ones who buy books for small children. And what a treat to find a presentation-box of Tattinger thrust into my hand by a man in a van as a good-luck gift from Harper Collins!

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To the RAF Club in Piccadilly in the evening – and you can’t get more hairy chested than that. It was for the launch of a marvellous book called Six Weeks of a Blenheim Summer – the autobiographical memoire of , Alastair Panton’s experiences as a young reconnaissance pilot-officer, during the Battle of France in 1940 and as a prisoner of war. It had been hidden away for years since it was a record of a defeat: 1000 planes were lost; Panton was shot down four times in four months; the Lancastria – a troopship – was sunk and all 4000 men killed. These were terrible losses (the latter, the most complete disaster of the war, perhaps) and went unreported for fear of demoralizing the nation. The shameful truth is that they are still unknown to most of us. Thank goodness, then for Victoria Panton Bacon, his granddaughter, who wrote a scholarly foreword for it and found a publisher for it, so determined was she that this lost piece of history should see the light of day.

Apart from Victoria who spoke very movingly, among other distinguished speakers and supporters of the book were  a minister of the crown, several high-ranking RAF officers – including an incredibly vivacious 91 year-old survivor of the Long March who was just about to tell me the details of a happy diversion via a brothel when he was button-holed by another admirer – was Louis de Bernieres. In his speech he described the debacle of the Battle of France as Part II of WW1, where Hitler did what the Kaiser wanted to do – which was to push through to the coast – and in only 11 days. This was achieved largely because the Fuehrer’s generals were wise enough to ignore his direct orders and equally because, although the French tanks were superior to the Germans’, the latter were fitted with radios. In other words, they had the advantage that they could summon an air-strike in ten minutes.

I was fascinated by this and had a little chat with L de B. It’s a measure of his generosity that he asked me what I did. I went all Quacky-Quack-Quack, of course, feeling a bit of a sub-species in the presence of the real thing. At which point he whipped out his notebook and got me to write a little message to his children who, he assured me, were great Harry and the Bucketful fans when they were younger. Incidentally, he expressed (naturally) an admiration for Joanna Lumley who was among the well-wishers and busily engaged elsewhere in the ballroom. Fired up now, and summoning hitherto suppressed reserves of testosterone, I extricated her and steered her in his direction. It was the least I could do.

March 26 2015 Books and Chocolate T-Rexes

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To Kingsway Jr in Watford to rally the reading troops yesterday morning. Another initiative from Sheryl at the outstanding Chorley Wood bookshop to whom I’m most grateful for creating a buzz about books, mine among them.

Off at a gallop from thence to take two of my grandchildren to see Sam Mendes’ musical production of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”. I have to say I don’t quite get Willy Wonka – played by the great Alex Jennings in a way that reminds you of Rex Harrison in “My Fair Lady” – not only in the way he delivers the songs but in his menace and cynicism. He appears to despatch Veruka, Augustus and the other child-horrors for being pains-in the neck and then to reward Charlie for his imagination… rather than being an all-round decent little chap. A factory full of chocs for having an imagination? Hmm.

Shrewd operator that Dahl, the way he encourage children to adore him when he clearly can’t stand ‘em . And well played the Dahl machine for pumping out the product. The entire theatre is devoted to product placement. Chocolate and Charlie have become inexorably mingled.

Am working on a close association between dinosaurs and buckets. Maybe chocolate buckets …

Anyway – nice to see that Lindt is making chocolate T-rexes.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

March 19th, 2015. On Kings, Ely and the Parlous State of our Cathedrals

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To Kings Ely Acremont yesterday – a pre-prep with bags of life and charm. Proper coffee as soon as you stepped through the door; that sort of thing. And your own box of Jaffacakes.

I wasn’t quite prepared for the large number of nursery children who turned up for the first session and although I’ve coped before with 3 year-olds many times before, a proper gaggles of them is a bit of an unknown quantity. You have to get used to being suddenly engaged in a earnest and confidential conversation across a crowded hall and in mid-flow, about the relative fierceness of certain dinosaurs, what somebody’s brother once did and how many books somebody else has got at home, accompanied by a short threnody on the noises lamented characters used to make. Keeps you on your toes, though.

Took a trip to the cathedral during my early lunch break- partly to walk off a generous roast that I shared with five jolly dinner ladies who rhapsodized about watching Harry on telly with their infants.

It was nippy outside, the fog that drifted over the fen beyond Cambridge having been huffed away by a biting easterly. I reckoned I had half an hour to get round – admire the miraculous octagon again, check out the biggest Lady Chapel in the country, that sort of thing. Not much warmer inside, though. A smile and a welcome from two shivering ladies in sashes who regretted the dear old standard issue gowns that used to keep the chill off. “Through that little gateway,that’s the way.”

“Hello! That’ll be £8.00, sir.”

I abandoned all pride and demanded a concession.

“Really?Are you sure?”

Flattery would normally have done the trick, but as Handcock might have spluttered… “Six quid? I could get meself a chantry for that!”

One is moved to verse.

 

Desperate Measures

Six pound, the concession, sir.

Forget about the chantry.

Just have a squizz at the octagon

And a nice cuppa tea in the pantry.

March 16th 2015. A Little Touch of Harry (and the Bucketful of Dinosaurs) in the night…

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More request-letters from small fans today – tis the season – and this time unusually challenging.

A class teacher from Penarth was doing a pilot project based on the study of picture books with her Year5/6ers. Then a letter turned up from a Literacy Specialist within the Central South Consortium declaring that there would be action taken on the school if the children continued to read these unsuitable texts.

I ars kew! Action against an initiative to look at what picture books are for, how they work? Le chat, as they say in Wales, etait parmi les pigeons.

Anyway, I sent a couple of girls who wrote to me a supportive email explaining a little about my thinking when it came to writing some of the texts they like:

Dear Edie and Jessica

I’m very sorry to be so late in replying to your beautifully written and interesting letters. This is a busy time for children’s authors and I’ve just dug you out from the bottom of a pile in my in-tray.

I entirely agree with you both that it’s a very interesting idea for older children to make a study of picture books. When I write one, I try to bear in mind that there’s an adult or older person reading it with the 2/3/4/5 year-old – so I have to try to engage both readers.

Edie mentions Harry and the Snow King. Ask a youngster where the snowpeople come from and they’ll tell you – “From the sky!” or “The Snowking sent them.” The important thing to them is the magic. An older person, however, can work out that Mr Oakley being a farmer as well as a friend of the family, sympathises with a little boy who doesn’t understand where his snowman has gone. He tells the boy not to give up hope – having looked up at the clouds and guessed – with his farmer’s experienced eye – that more snow is on the way. A slightly younger person may suspect that Sam put the snow people in the yard – but they will have overlooked the conflict between the children. So the story is about hope and its rewards – and about the kindness of understanding fellow humans; and it provides plenty of things to talk about.

Similarly, a 5 year-old won’t appreciate that Harry and the Robots is partly a story about death. Nan is hospitalised and may not recover but is given a new lease of life by her grandchild’s faith in the robots he builds in order to blast her cough. For little children, the story is about robots that come to life and are commanded by a small boy; about the good feelings that controlling things bring. For older people, the story is about the power of love and belief and the possibility of new life (resurrection, even). I was considering having Nan die in the book but the publishers insisted that Nan should be around for more books – so I had the robot “die” and then get restored to life.

I’m a firm believer in sharing books – in books providing opportunities for conversation. 80% of parents – according to Professor Winston – never have a conversation with their children about things that matter. A book that opens a door (maybe not while the story’s being read but later perhaps) to a conversation about matters of life and death, one that provides a chance to deal with loss or the potential loss of a grandparent, say; surely that deserves some attention.

About “Splash”. Here the story is (for a youngster) about mucking around in a swimming pool with a gang of fun-loving dino-chums and Nan; about the joy of swimming. However, it’s also about self-consciousness and about two people helping each other overcome fears and anxieties. Like my mother, Nan fears that she’s too old and ugly to be seen in a swimming costume. However, she sees how nervous Harry is about the water (having been knocked over by a wave) and realises that he needs help to get his confidence back. To that end, she sets aside her worries and buys a costume. (Incidentally, a small child won’t notice that Harry’s scared; only that the dinosaurs are nervous. The dinos help Harry and the child-reader cope by allowing their anxieties to be put on others.)

 

There’s plenty more to say, of course and I hope other correspondents will. I’m just dis custard of Middlesex.

March 15th, 2015. Nice Turns of Phrase & a Glimmer of Hope for Picture Books

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At 94, my mother-in-law can be Shakespearean. “That wind is naughty,” she says. Her arthritic fingers are often dismissed as equally worthless – as are the last twinges of the shingles that got its talons into her back in September. Naughty, naughty.

“’tis a naughty night to swim in,” the Fool warns Lear as he starts to strip off his clothes. And there it is: “naughty” stripped to its origins. Like a zero; worth nothing; of no account at all.

I love that sort of discovery – which reminds me: must order up Robert Macfarlane’s latest – Landmarks. So it was a treat to have presented to me a phrase that I simply could not unpick but that was used unselfconsciously in an email I received recently from Andy Davidson, a Year 2 teacher at the British School in Jakarta, asking me if I would like to read some of the letters his class have written about Harry.

He was generous to a fault about the books, providing not only a thoughtful summary of some of the things his children got out of them – but a defence of picture books threatened by modern technology, so I’ll quote him.

“Attached are a selection of (mixed ability) letters to you.

We have had a wonderful time unpacking your books – looking for familiar happenings and words regularly used. Definitely and Endosaurus are used with abandon by my Snakes now. They love the conflict between Sam and Harry – and loved it when Nan got involved in putting Sam’s gas at a peep in the Splash book. Next week we will be attempting to write a story using Harry. Thank you so much once again for providing the wonderful stories as a catalyst. My Snakes’ letters are pretty good too…

 

Third Culture (Techie) children can still be charmed by a good old fashioned picture book!”

 

Now there’s an encouragement. And naturally, I had to ask him what he meant by “putting Sam’s gas at a peep.

Here’s his answer

 

“My mother used this phrase a lot.

PEEP: A tiny light or flame, the lowest level at which a gas flame can be at without going out, hence the phrase PUT SOMEONE’S GAS AT A PEEP to cut someone down to size, to put someone in their place, to take someone down a peg.”

 

My correspondents want to know what happened to Harry’s dad. If only I could take up their invitation to drop by and read them one of my books. If I could afford the fare I’d be off like a gos from an austringer’s glove.