Ian Whybrow

…coming soon…

City Spring Suddenly

February 16, 2016 - Filed under: Blog - Leave a comment

Glorious morning here in our new place in Cambridge – after a proper frost.

From my study window I look out on to a row of bare sycamores that mark the boundary line of what until recently has been a building site. Having seen no sign of life since we got here – apart from kids playing football on an all-weather pitch – I was heartened to see a day or two ago three long-tail tits trapezing among the twigs of what, when the leaves appear, will be the upper canopy. Two of the long-tails are back again today – with a whole crowd of tits and finches, a pair of blackbirds – even a spotted woodpecker.

Our new bookcase is nearly complete; I’ve been invited to supper with a local writing-group; I’ve signed off some charmingly revamped books illustrated by Axel Scheffler, received my copies of my contribution to a new CUP educational series; sorted out arrangements for working visits to Bangkok, Australia and China; written a couple of new texts and sent my carol off for approval to the director of the choir Ann and I have recently joined.

Move over Gerard Manley Hopkins. I have to tell you … I am feeling damn Suddenly.


City Spring Suddenly


In my patch of garden sky

Fractured by a leafless tree

Only the usual birds flew by:

Pigeon, gull, a stray magpie;

Nothing living else to see.


Then today, to justify

Hope above expectancy

Something shivering up high

Takes the corner of my eye

Where the canopy will be.


Barely-budding twiglets vie

To unseat a boisterous three

Long-tails. Shifting minims, they

Dip and dance, sing sweet and shy

Of Spring , of … Suddenly!

November 28th, 2015: Some Good Deeds in a Naughty World

November 28, 2015 - Filed under: Blog - Leave a comment

The news has been dreadful for the last couple of weeks, the weather has taken a wintry turn and I confess that I approached my “outreach” work on Wednesday and Friday with the same mind-set I sometimes employ for theatre-going when I assume that the show’s going to be somewhere between so-so and terrible so that I can be warmly surprised when it’s not that bad.

I confess that when I was asked to talk last Wednesday to all the children in Blackfield Primary school in the New Forest, I was expecting something run-of-the-mill that might be leavened a bit by the unusual opportunity afterwards to declare open a “Discovery Centre” – what I took to be a fancy name for a spare room with a bookshelf or two that had undergone a lurid paint-job. I also took with a pinch of salt the assurance that one or two parents might turn up after school for the occasion and that I should be ready to have a word with them about the power of books and reading.

It never crossed my mind that there were in fact FOUR completely refurbished libraries for me to declare open for business. They were scattered across the considerable campus, each suited to a different age-group; each smelling deliciously of shiny new books; each full of enticingly colourful, expertly-produced displays, hands-on surprises, things to touch and explore; each promisingly parcelled by a purple ribbon tied in a bonny bow.

A good half an hour after most parents might have been expected to be warming their weary smalls with a beaker of something in front of the telly, an eager and expectant CROWD appeared, urged on by bright-eyed offspring . They listened patiently to my reassurances that this school was something special in the pains it took to make reading a thrill and then we were off, surging along the corridors, buzzing with excitement, cheering away as I and the librarian and I scissored open one wonder after the other: The Globe; Wonderland; Krypton; the Harry Potter Centre – a galaxy of brave new worlds that they, their inexhaustible librarian, a talented art-director, a determined Head and a band of dedicated teachers had fashioned with love and pride.

Then, yesterday (Friday) morning – another lovely smack in the gob. Ann and I are patrons of Megan Baker House in Leominster, Herefordshire, a very special little charity dedicated to improving the mobility and confidence of children with motor disabilities, particularly cerebral palsy. Almeley Primary is a village school whose intake has recently expanded from the low 50s to 72. It serves 45 families, including the family of Rhys, a bouncy, evidently happy little lad who also regularly attends MBH for therapy. Matthew Maund, the Head, was keen to combine an author-visit with the presentation of a cheque to the director of MBH, Lee Gough, to come as the climax to a term’s fundraising – and I was delighted to help.

I expected the 45 families in this rural community to have raised … a couple of hundred pounds, perhaps. In fact they gathered an astonishing One thousand, five hundred and fifty three pounds.

Think! says Betjeman in “In Westminster Abbey”…

Think of what our Nation stands for,
Books from Boots’ and country lanes,
Free speech, free passes, class distinction,
Democracy and proper drains.

He might have added:

And very often, if one looks,

You’ll find good schools with proper books.

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Herefordshire Morning September 27th, 2015

October 1, 2015 - Filed under: Blog - Leave a comment

This now


Early I loped up Lyonshall Hill

To empty my head

But found it filled with morning light

And this instead.


The dawn was rosy-fingered.

Ha!  so was I.

The lucent mist that lingered

Watered my eye.


The sheep were shadowed in the fields:

Boulders; stone.

And quiet cows dipped down to browse,

Each its own zone.


Woodpecker swam their wavy way

From pole to pole.

Finches and chiffchaffs manned the hedge;

No other soul.


I clutch this ball of sweetness

That I have here

This now. A small completeness:


Lost on Mars. September 25th, 2015

September 25, 2015 - Filed under: Blog - Comments (2)

Listening to a chat on the Today Programme this morning about “The Martian”, a film concerning a space traveller who gets left behind on the Red Planet by accident, reminds me. Many a moon ago I abandoned a kid to what I feared might be a similar fate.

This was pre-mobiles, pre Health and Safety, pre Risk Assessments. Pre-history for most people. I’d arranged to take a coachload of Sixth Formers to see – probably “ A Midsummer Night’s Dream” or possibly “Antony and Cleopatra”. And this was also pre- M40 – so coaches had to travel from Harrow via Oxford and Blenheim. All very nice on the way there, but in the pitch dark coming home late – a bit slow and gloomy.

There was a certain amount of murmuring; sniggering, actually – but the kind that you expect from teenage boys, so I paid no attention until – about 35 minutes into our journey home– a be-spectacled and quite serious face loomed in the dark and a whispered voice let me know that Wiggins was not on the coach. Wiggins – not his real name –was, it seems, not a particularly popular chap.

The blood congealed. The sweat sprang coldly. The hairs upon the fretful portpentine were not so upstanding as mine. The boy was alone. Lost . Abandoned at night in a strange city. His parents would know by now. The police would have been informed. The mat had no doubt been unrolled in the Head’s study to accommodate my size nine and a halfs first thing in the morning.

The driver was less than co-operative. He had a schedule. Not allowed, mate. Anyway there was nowhere to turn on this narrow road. Defferny no turning back.

I can’t remember what had to change hands before he was prepared to risk dismissal. I may have ordered a whip-round.

We drove in a grim and eerie silence back to Stratford. Back to the coach park. It was past midnight and the place was empty.

I’ve blanked out the process – although with only public phone boxes and limited access to numbers, it must have been excruciatingly long, incriminating, and painful for Commander Whybrow. Mission Control must have been close to meltdown.

Turns out that Wiggins had waited ten minutes and then booked himself into the nearest hotel. The blister!

Not sure yet how the film ends. Do they have a Hilton on Mars?

August 25th 2015. Open your wallet and repeat after me: “Help yourself…”

August 25, 2015 - Filed under: Blog - Leave a comment

I should be getting on with my work but I’m stuck.

  1. I’m pre-occupied with thoughts of moving home.
  2. The Saniflo toilet next to the bath won’t switch off properly.
  3. Me shares are on the skids, thanks to the Chinese, apparently.
  4. I may have to have further, possibly painful, definitely expensive work done on the very molar that I tend to chew most on.

Couple of weeks ago, Mr Drake took an x-ray to see what was giving me gip and noticed an infinitesimal splidge on the root. I get that sort of thing on my screen if I sneeze while I’m typing but – “Harley Street,” he said. “Looks like a root canal job. Could be an incipient abscess. I’ll send a note to Mr Lam. He’s excellent.”

It was Lily the receptionist who broke it to me gently me that in order to avoid the extraction of said tooth, I should expect to have a thousand smackeroos extracted from my wallet.

Well, I went to see Mr Lam. Ann, my wife had assured me that it was probably the same Mr Lam who once rootled very successfully in one of her canals. She described a gentle and loquacious giant, a Chinese gent who talked her through the whole thing with all the artistry and sang-froid of the man from Air Traffic Control who talks down a passenger when the pilot has blacked out at the controls.

I went to Harley Street, chequebook at the ready. I found the brass plate and wondered. There was an extra “b”. Hmmm.


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As I waited in the sumptuous room appointed for the purpose to be admitted to the inner sanctum, I composed in my head a short, arguably rather vengeful ditty for tweeting purposes that went:


Occurs to me: what I just did

In parting with a thousand quid

To fix my teeth, makes what I am

Strangely, the slaughter to a Lamb.


Turns out that Mr Lamb with a “b” i s in fact a South African of fairly normal proportions and a smile displaying a row of encouragingly dazzling and immaculate choppers. He gives me a going over with some splendid devices including something that sends an electric current through certain nerves, takes another x-ray and declares that by the light of his rather superiorly defined snapshot, the crown shows evidence of a slight lesion underneath but no abscess. All Mr Drake has to do is whip off the crown, re-lay the cement foundation and Bob’s me uncle. Hooray. I return to Baker Street whistling like one who has just lost a small fortune but found several hundred quid lying in the gutter.

Hubris or what?

Returned to Mr D today. He had set aside a spot for me during his lunch-hour and set the meter running. Sadly be was unable to remove the crown without busting it, so he replaced it with a temporary tin and silver job. (I make this sound simple in order to sublimate the crunching, jaw-bending experience that these things are in actuality.) He is popping this on, he tells me, it in case I continue to have any problems. If I don’t, he’ll order a proper porcelain job and if not … I shall probably be back in the arms of Mr Lamb. There. That hardly hurt at all.

The Saniflo engineer has arrived. He has just had to dismantle the entire bathroom in order to get at the membrane that has undoubtedly got choked with lime-scale and is not allowing the cut-out button to cut in.

Ann, meanwhile has gone to Knightsbridge to have her hair done.

God, I shouldn’t be mucking about doing this! I should writing something that’s got a chance of making a few bob. But I’m more blocked than a Saniflo with a dodgy membrane.

It’s the worry, doctor.

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 …


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

April 9, 2015 - Filed under: Blog - Leave a comment

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

March 30, 2015 - Filed under: Blog - Leave a comment

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.