Ian Whybrow

…coming soon…

October 31st, 2013. La Vie est Douce

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I have to say that I’m deeply touched by all the birthday greetings I have received from kind Facebookers on this, my official birthday and I thank you very much for taking the trouble to send me messages of congratulation. True, the sceptical remarks of certain hitherto esteemed ex-students have tented me to the quick but one has to learn to ride with these cruel  punches and enjoy being 42 again.

Yesterday I enjoyed several positive conversations with editors and admired the cover pics for the next wave of Books for Boys, as well as hanging up the washing. Twice.

Meanwhile I continue to labour at a grate and occult werk and intend to do other important things on this day, including getting my hair cut and toddling down to Waitrose to pick up some green veg  to go with our venison steaks. Ann will be back from Life Drawing in time for supper and will almost certainly totally complete my day with cheery reports of her experience.  Ah, the life of the orfer.


October 29th 2013. Apres la Deluge

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The sun doth arise

And make merry the skies.

Remarkably, the chestnut outside my window is still sporting most of its leaves.

Apart from the knocked over pot-plants and dustbins, we had , according to our neighbour in the upstairs flat, a small hole blown in the roof just as repairs to it were being completed. The storm left not much to moan about round here, then.

A call to Joan in Long Melford bought excited tales of men with their jackets blown over their heads; a bus blown over a hedge on the Hadleigh road; an all-day power cut, a pergola in the house opposite taking off like a spaceship and devastation to my sister-in-law’s garden. Much more like it!

I haven’t heard Joan so lively since her 92nd birthday party. “You’re the sixth person who’s phoned this morning,” she said. “And I only came up to go to the loo.” I wondered whether I should call back, “No! It’s all right! I’ve been,” she assured me. “It’s just that I haven’t had time to pull me pants up properly yet.”

October 28th, 2013. Disgruntled or A High Wind by West Acre

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Staggered down Harrow Hill this morning in the teeth of the predicted storm for my annual blood test and flu jab.  Before I set off, our potted plants  had to be set straight and all the bins( bravely put out on to the kerbside last night by Marie) needed to  be righted and their unsavoury innards tucked back in.  Yuck!  I was feeling aggrieved and self-righteous when I bumped into Anne Hall-Williams, striding down towards Lyon’s, the newest House, to show potential parents round Harrow School. “Bog Standard!” she said of the gale, with a dismissive wave of the hand and reminded me of the proper one that in 1987 had laid a plane tree across London Road outside her house and hurled our chimney into the neighbour’s garden.

I was forced to turn my disgruntlement to Holloween-creep.  Its paraphernalia is everywhere. My grandchildren are permanently witched-up and whisked off to pumpkin-puncturing parties.  When we lived in Bellrose Village, New York over 30 years ago, it was a pleasant surprise to watch one’s children become part of what seemed an exotic neighbourhood ritual  that was mostly about the accumulation of candy and cookies; and besides, it gave a bit of spice to Lucy’s birthday celebrations, falling as they do on October 31st. There were warnings about stranger-danger and tales of razor blades in apples handed over to children by old men in clap-board houses, of course – but then there were plenty of other horror stories about axe murderers on the subway, etc.  City dwellers everywhere like to appal strangers with stories of the tough lives they have to lead –  so nothing  particularly worrisome about All Souls’ Night, then.  What I liked about it then was that it was an American custom, as neighbourly and exotic as the habit of painting everything green on St Patrick’s Day or celebrating Thanksgiving.  I never imagined that it would become a mainstay of British culture – but that’s commercialism for you.

Move over Guy Fawkes;  there’s  much  better weather for fireworks  on July 4th. Bah!

25th October 2013. Out of the Mouths

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Joan stopped on her way to the loo yesterday to recall how, about forty years ago, our Suzannah, aged two had dashed up to her and grabbed her sleeve. “Wee-wee,” she announced and set off at speed along the hall. After three steps, she stopped in her tracks, turned and shrugged. “Too late,” she said.

That in turn made me think of Suzannah’s daughter, Ella, when she was about the same age.  She was getting agitated and Ann waved an open book under her nose to distract her. “Look, Ella,” she said. “This will fascinate you.”

Ella furiously dismissed it with, “I’ve been fascinated by that two times already.”


Joan’s 92nd was a triumph and she brought home her chums from the Long Melford  British Legion (Ladies’) to enjoy a birthday tea. She herself had made an enormous quantity of cakes and Ann and I made the sandwiches and put the champers on ice while she was out. The ladies, all widows, most with proper, singing Suffolk accents were inspirational to a woman – community minded, hard-working, charitable and appreciative of one another. Margaret, their chair and driver for 24 years (ever since she was widowed) is a fount of delightful wheezes involving dressing up in gear from Oxfam, lunches, outings, speakers, etc.  Next week she was going to show everyone how to make a Christmas tree out of “nothing at all, no coathangers involved”.  As she left, she explained how tricky it was to get hold of anything suitable for a standard-bearer for the Poppy Day parade.  “It’s impossible to find black that matches black,” she explained, and the only jacket I could find was a size 22. Never mind. Now you must excuse me. I’m just off to boil a beret.”

They go a bit purple apparently, and boiling them fixes the colour. I think I’ve got that right. Talk about …


The Indefatigables

When Legion Ladies came to tea,

All widows making merry,

Their Chair and standard bearer

Had to leave to boil a beret.


24th October 2013. Lunch with a Stranger; Commitments later

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I think I must have picked up my cold at the Sherborne Lit Fest last week and now my sinuses are in full spate – which is particularly galling since Ann and I have arranged a party today to mark the occasion of her mother’s 92nd birthday. All kissing is off, of course – and I’m doing my best to wash my hands every time my hands come into contact with my rosy conk – but Eeyoreish experience teaches pessimism in these cases.

I hope I haven’t passed it on to the lady I met on Tuesday who won me in the Lungs4laughing charity auction; or to be more precise, she won a couple of hours of my time. That was the theory, anyway. The reality was that she gave me her time and was far more fascinating than I.  I was slightly apprehensive about meeting her, especially since, when she called to make an arrangement to meet, she made it clear that she had no intention of writing a children’s book. Her husband, a well-known journalist, had put in a bid for a chat about getting published as an anniversary present, she explained, and she would be delighted to meet up for lunch and throw questions at me.

We chose to meet at a bar in Notting Hill. She was there when I arrived and recognised me from my pics on the net. Naturally I apologised but she didn’t seem to mind at all and she didn’t mind my asking her more questions than she had for me. She had had quite a life.  Some of it involved selling derivatives to predatory Sheikhs for a well-known bank and some of it involved getting kidnapped. Until two suits turned up at her London flat and removed the wheels from her Merc parked nearby, she had no presentiment of being whipped off and incarcerated in a windowless room. As she later discovered, her boyfriend of the time had run up a hefty gambling debt with a North London  crime syndicate. Luckily, she had one or two wealthy connections, her ransom was paid and after two days, she was released. “Only eighty grand,” she said wistfully. “I would have thought I was worth more than that.”

So how’s that for a quiver full of arrows? She’s got tons to write about. Her only problem is to know where to start…

The Commitments – at the Palace Theatre – was loud, proud and exotically foulmouthed. It was huge fun – though not quite as well-structured and satisfying as the Alan Parker film. I had booked for the balcony and expected to see very little for £20 a ticket. As it happened, the balcony was undersold so we got bumped into Row B of the stalls. I have to say that the bank of speakers ranged along the underside of the stage made for some – as it transpired justifiable – apprehension but a couple of balls of screwed-up tissue jammed down the earhole saved what’s left of my hearing and I was able to yell Mustang Sally and Try a Little Tenderness along with the rest of the audience  – soul style, brother.

October 19th, 2013. At the Sherborne Lit Fest

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Am staying in Sherborne in Dorset with Mark and Hester Greenstock, poised to do my bit for the Lit Fest later today. Much enjoyed two turns last night, one by Tracy Chevalier who was talking about her latest book, The Last Runaway. I’m only half way through it and am deeply grateful for the insights she provided into quilting, Quakerism and being a stranger in a strange land. The other was by Michael Dobbs – whose House of Cards, both in its English and American manifestations, I loved. He was more showily raconteurish – and was more at pains to flog a range of books. The result was a yearning for more matter and less art. I should take a lesson from this, but since I’m talking across a fairly wide range of age-groups later on, I shall no doubt have to touch too lightly on too many books, too.

After a quick inter-event supper yesterday, as Hester was rushing to clear the dishwasher to make room for new arrivals, a dish slipped and chopped a quite substantial teapot clean in two.


It moved me to verse as I lay musing in the dark this morning.

Hai –Ya!

A slender dish fell off the shelf

And cleft a pot in two

Did you note that? asked Mr Kung.

I did, said Mr Fu.

While I was chatting to Mark about Sharjah, much impressed to hear that he knew much of the history and influence of the place in tackling pirates on behalf of HM Government in the days when Britain had more buckets in Middle Eastern wells, I happened to overhear Hester say to Ann: “Now wait. Didn’t he marry one of his mothers?” Beyond Oedipus, one might think. It turned out that she was reminiscing about a House Master at Harrow. An interesting “overheard” if you didn’t know that, eh?

Hello, Laurence Anholt has sent a verse reply to my twittered Kung Fu doggerel. This could go on.

October 17th 2013. This is not a Diary

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An encounter with two diarists yesterday – Pepys and Klee – put me firmly in my place as a flea in the Records Dept. The only things that console me are these:

A reminder that Pepys, having taken up a good deal of space in a diary entry talking about a thoroughly absorbing couple of visits to the theatre, tacks on at the end – “Another six hundred dead of the plague.” And he wasn’t weighed down by The News in the way that we are. So I don’t have to feel too bad about hardly mentioning that the U S just pulled back from the budgetary cliff edge, that war-casualties in Syria and Cyclone deaths in India are soaring.

Klee kept a diary throughout WW1 and spent a good deal of time in the years immediately following the war by re-writing it. We all write with half an eye on posterity, of course – some of us knowing that there’s a fat chance of our being remembered for more than a fraction of a second – but at least blogs and tweets go up on the noticeboard pretty well unalterably. So perhaps the sum of all this blogged guff may add up to something of the zeitgeist of our time.

I took a day off yesterday to go on a Pepys walk in the city with Ann’s Women’s Group – in the driving rain. Even so, it was terrific – an inspiration to get back to Claire Tomalin’s wonderful biography of the man. We were taken to the gardens behind St Paul’s (near where he went to school) where I’ve never been to. It’s the biggest open space in the city, apparently. There we heard how Collet et al inspired Pepys’s educational work: proper training for sailors, a school master for the children of women in the Bridewell, etc; his love of books and his fanatical orderliness. We visited Stationers Hall where his distraught bookseller’s stock was carried to save them from the flames of the Great Fire – only to discover that the Hall itself was entirely consumed by the fire. I love the idea of Pepys, once he had a few bob, ordering a navy carpenter to make him bookcases with glass doors (unusual till then) with risers so that the shorter books – always to be returned to the same spot – could be on a level at the top with the taller. Apparently, he left 3000 books and his papers, among which was his diary, to Magdelene College, Cambridge, ordering that only the Master be allowed to lend them out, and then only two at a time; any breach to be followed by confiscation and removal of entire library to another college.

I now understand my meticulous civil servant cousin Andrew a little better.

I’d never before been inside the St Bride’s, Pepys’s local church (there’s a plaque to mark his birthplace just opposite the building where the Sunday Times was first published) which having been flattened during the war and rebuilt is now the journalist’s church, situated as it is just off Fleet Street. It’s a very affecting space. Candles flicker for journalists killed in the course of their work, for those missing, and imprisoned – or simply worth remembering – like David Frost.

And I’d never seen The King’s Wardrobe either – tucked away off Bridge Street. It was once a nice little earner for Pepys’s patron, Lord Sandwich and is now mostly serviced apartments for the wealthy.

I wouldn’t mind a stop-over one night – after the theatre and a plate of chops.


The paintings of Klee exhibited at Tate Modern are hung in so dim a light, in such bleak, blank adjoining spaces, as to leave on gasping for light and air feeling frightfully philistine. All that a pyrotechnical Belshazzar’s Feast at the Royal Festival Hall in the evening has left me so knackered that this morning I stubbed several toes, thumped my kidney against the corner of the bookcase and spilled my tea as I tripped down the three stairs from the kitchen.

October 13th 2013. Oft in the Frilly Nut

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Rose with the rain battering the window.

Up and Underwhelmed

Not a morning for elation.

Far too much precipitation.

Crept to the kitchen to crack consoling hazelnuts. Bored by rancid brazils, sour walnuts and bitter almonds, I find these sweet beauties irresistible. Properly plumped and abundant this year, there’s no nicer nut on earth.



Crackers, Please

Nuts of all kinds delight me but

None more so than the hazelnut.

Top of the hedgerow, there they  jut –

A nutty glut.


I guess being a nutter, or nuts derives from the relationship with one’s head – and being crackers is some kind of extension of that tennis-elbow-foot game. This wordplay, like our very own nuts makes one proud to be English.   Huzzah!


October 12th, 2013. Our Town

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Went rather reluctantly to see a Harrow School House production of Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town” and thoroughly enjoyed it. It was played simply and unaffectedly, unhindered by awkwardness – either in the performances or in the audience that was composed largely of adolescent males – about the necessity for cross-dressing and the focus on a burgeoning romance between two innocents. For all its Norman Rockwell sentiment, the piece still asks interesting questions in an interesting way.

One of the most touching scenes is where the dead sit still and ruminate on why they didn’t appreciate life more. I came away thinking about dead headmasters.

Epitaph for a Successful Headmaster

He was small but neatly dressed.

He listened, never seemed too pressed.

His politicking did the rest.


I enjoyed the reports of the Queen’s conversation with Joanne Harris as HM pinned on the novelist’s MBE. Great weight was given to the fact that Ms H. comes from Huddersfield. Calls for another plinth, then – to go alongside the one outside the station bearing the statue of Harold Wilson.


HM Lashes Out at Children’s Bad Habits

One loves a proper book

And as your Queen

One has to say

Prefers it to a screen.


October 11th, 2013 Ghosts and Decisions

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Ann and I saw Richard Eyre’s production of Ibsen’s “Ghosts” at the Almeida a couple of nights ago. We agree that neither of us has seen a more intense or engaging production at the theatre in years. The play couldn’t be more grim, dealing as it does with moral decay, hypocrisy, betrayal, bigotry, incest, disease, euthanasia and so on. But it’s astonishing how uplifting as well as thought-provoking it is to see a fine tragedy, brilliantly produced and acted. Lesley Manville never puts a foot wrong, the ensemble playing is magnificent and the set is a triumph.

The first sketches for a picture book about meerkats have arrived in my inbox. The book is to pick up on the success of the Meerkat Madness books for young readers. Gary Parsons is the chosen illustrator and his work is a delight. The big question is – how anthropomorphic to make the scenes. In the novels I was at pains to make the environment and behaviour of the Really Mad Mob as authentic as possible – though the fact that all meerkats look alike to the untrained eye created problems for the illustrator, so I had to think of a way of identifying them. A pair of sunglasses; a plastic bath-toy; a safari scarf and a small pith helmet found in the lost suitcase of a child on safari, worn by a safari action man doll:  all these come in handy. The child’s comfort-blanket becomes a robe such as a girl in an African desert tribe might wear. But I think I agree that for a picture book, we may have to go further and show … furniture in the burrow, for example. Why not, given that the creatures are allowed to speak English? Still, it feels thin-end-of-the-wedgy.