Ian Whybrow

…coming soon…

November 27th 2013. The Semi-Optimist

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There’s always one more squeeze of toothpaste,

One scrape of the marmalade jar;

There’s always one left in the After-Eight box…

But where are the keys of my car?

November 24th 2013. How time flies when one has fun, says Estragon.

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Two weeks since I bothered to blog and hardly a Tweet out of me. Cyclones and other tragedies have rocked us all; banking scandals; another crook who knows how to smile and smile and be a villain; another momentary triumph for the England cricket team – another collapse. I have had nothing worth saying about those things and have felt the hot flush of shame that comes with a heightened awareness that blogs are just self-aggrandizing blah.

I blame this idleness and debilitating self-consciousness not only on a bubbling cough and a lingering cold, but on that feverish state one gets into when one starts to walk about in the parallel bubble that is a gestating book, a fever devoutly to be wished by a writer.  I’ve spent hours on the phone talking tweaks and illustrations; and that’s fun. I have been to the odd lovely supper with friends, a companionable drinks party; I’ve felt very welcome doing a turn in a school; I’ve squirted Nivea moisturizer on to my toothbrush and amused self and my wife no end.

Among other pleasant moments, I recall:

our choir’s first rehearsal – the world premier, no less – of my one and only carol. That was something special, at once terrifying and thrilling.

Amelie, my granddaughter’s ,ecstatic  immersion in her school play, as a wiggling, Blue-handed Jumbly.

A tribute to Seamus Heaney in a full house at the Royal Festival Hall: how deeply moving and inspirational it was to hear his work read as at a wake by mourning, admiring friends, most of them fine poets themselves.  And more spine tingling even that the haunting, echoing, overlapping skeins of the music of fiddles and pipes and tin whistles – the reading by a shock-haired, impassioned Edna O’Brien of the poem about the discovery in a bog of the mummified body of a young girl executed for adultery, the rope still round her neck to call our attention to all the poor things murdered before and since by fearful, posturing hypocritical tribal bigots in the name of God.

And an unexpected lunch yesterday at The Great House in Lavenham.   Book now! There simply cannot be a more delicious, cosseting, civilized, Epicurean means of passing a few dreamy hours – than to savour new flavours at an elegant table among attentive French waiters in a Suffolk village of exceptional  beauty.


November 10th, 2013. Daylight Robbery

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About a year ago, my friend, Phil Tann died of Motor Neuron Disease. Yesterday his daughter sent me an account of the robbery of his widow, Annie. Her report stirred such a mixture of powerful feeling in me that I thought I would share some extracts.


“Sorry if I’m repeating news in this email. Sort of lost track today who knows what through the day – soooo I don’t miss letting people know…. Police couldn’t come last night. Andy’s bravely stayed at Mum’s house as it wasn’t secure at the back and Mum spent night at Sally’s. Police came 10ish this morning. They said there had been two other burglaries in nearby roads last night and 11 between Hadleigh and Thundersley all last night.

The police called it a “messy search” lots of drawers out, contents strewn, mostly upstairs and in Mum’s bedroom where they found their treasure trove and even sorted costume and valuable jewellery out on Mum’s bed.

Sadly the bits they took have the most sentiment. Mum’s engagement ring, her 21st birthday gold bracelet from Nana & Grandad. All Dad’s Valentines jewellery he’d given her over the last 50 years. Great-Nan’s gold locket. 25 year wedding locket from Dad. Confirmation cross from her parents. Dad’s gold pen set. £200 cash in a wooden box! Lots of silver earrings. Bizarrely have 9 halves of earring pairs left in their haste.

 Mum feels they have taken more of Dad from her. 

 But says her “gift” was finding her eternity ring in a box they didn’t see.

 Mud on carpets and clothes they threw around. Police said they wore gloves and hope to get more physical evidence from other houses.

We cleaned and tidied and made lists.

Insurance sent a man before dark to make back of house secure.

As she did the day Dad died, Mum said she had to stay in house on her own tonight else she wouldn’t.”


What strikes me – apart from the callousness and brutality of the robbery is that the police did not attend the scene – although the robbery was reported at 9.00 in the evening – until 10.00 the following morning. Initially, they told her to leave everything as it was until they arrived and that they would be there in an hour and made no further call to say what they were up to. The patio doors were bashed in. How could a single, elderly woman be expected to stay in the unsecured house by herself overnight? Did the busy robbers take account of the fact that the police would be too stretched to cope? And is it possible that the police, aggrieved to be stretched and underfunded, were making a political point in not coping quickly? After all, it’s not to their advantage to show they can cope when they’re undermanned.  Do they not “triage” cases? If they do, why was Annie not near the top of the list as needing support? Perhaps they didn’t know her circumstances: but surely  they ought to have and weren’t asking the right questions.

Annie was remarkably sanguine about the devastation. She told me that when they were young parents and had a baby buggy stolen, Phil urged her to consider that someone might have got a bit of good out of it.

Wish I could be that forgiving.

November 8th, 2013. RIP Tom Powell

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Our friend Thomas Powell died yesterday. There another great spirit gone. Poor old Tom. We shall miss him enormously.

It’s very hard to believe he’s dead. He was such a good friend to us, so kind, so lively and generous with his time, always ready to put his mind and considerable muscle to sorting things out our garden, or getting our car going when it conked out. Even when Parkinson’s was setting in quite badly and his walking was slow and shuffling, you’d hear him staggering up the lane with the mower. “I’ll just mow the lawns and that’s it!” he’d gasp when he finally made it. What a man!

Always enquiring (“Now what would you say was worse, Ian, Ypres or The Dardanelles?”) always ready for a chat, he was a force of nature. I remember him turning up with (yet another) dreadful gash, this time on his head. “Now Ian,” he said, reassuringly, seeing my open mouth. “I can assure you that one is not chainsaw-related.”

As I write, I think of him bringing up several of his large collection of hammers (I believe he had 50 or 60 of them) so that we could pound in posts to keep the hedge from falling towards the lane. One of them, a “beetle”, was so enormous I could hardly lift it. I’d never actually gripped one, though I’d come across beetles via Falstaff in Henry 1V Pt ii …

“If I do, fillip me with a three-man beetle”

Tom, of course, was able to swing his three-manner all day and did most of the work.

Another time, he came up the garden and found me peering into a hole in the vegetable patch. “Do you think there’s a rabbit in there, Tom?” I asked. He was wearing something like his Sunday best – definitely a smart jacket, anyway – but without a second’s hesitation he threw himself flat on the earth and plunged his arm down the hole, right up to the armpit. “Nope,” says he, looking about thoughtfully. “Whatever he was, he’s not here now.” I had visions of a weasel or something else with sharp teeth – but Tom never gave it a thought. “Get in there!” was his motto.

He was a poet as well as a man of action and I should like to take the liberty of reproducing here one of the pieces he gave to me and which I treasure. He wouldn’t have known anything about John Clare but I reckon Tom Powell of Brilley in Herefordshire matches the Northamptonshire man in the un-self-conscious pride and delight he took in the countryside he loved.

Country Daybreak (Dedicated to my great friend Molly Jackson)

The blackbird’s song breaks the peace of dawn

Cobwebs glitter on the lawn.

The sun is rising behind the hill,

The mist in the valley lies thick and still.

The cattle are waking in the meadows green.

No woodland life has yet been seen.

The rooks are building in the woods around.

The thrush sings his song; what a wonderful sound!

The buzzard is perched in the topmost tree,

An excellent place and far to see.

His eyes are fixed on a hedgerow green

Where shivering prey is easily seen.

We now see the fox saunter back to his lair.

He has time on his side, so he doesn’t care.

As the warmth of the sun dries the morning dew

Stop and think of the wonders that Nature can do.

November 7th 2013. Another Day, Another Dinosaur

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None of us would be where we are today without dinosaurs, me especially – which is how I found myself yesterday making a two hour early-morning dash through heavy traffic to a school event up Wantage way, to put a literary spin on Dinosaur Week at Grove Primary.
They never had this sort of thing when I was a kid – just as they never had fruit and veg; peanut (or any other) allergies, dyslexia, intervention TAs; records of achievement including photographs to demonstrate what the as-yet-innumerate and illiterate can do; lids on cups of tea to make it more difficult to hurl it over a passing child, or indeed , any noticeable measure to promote Elf and Safety beyond crates of sour-smelling warm milk in third-of-a-pint glass bottles and occasional visits from Nitty Nora the Flea Explorer. What would Mr Bullock at St Saviours Westgate have given, with fifty of us to teach in the top class, for a TA? But I was shocked to find out that these invaluable props to our educational system get paid less than the living wage. £8 an hour, they get! – to take over classes while the class teacher prepares lessons. Good thing most of ‘em love it..
I’ve never seen so many dino-shaped cakes and biscuits – or effigies in various media – under one roof. Oh yes, every school needs a Dino-week: it makes for a very jolly community atmosphere even when rain stops normal play.

Nest uncovered

Pteradactyl prepares for take-off

November 5th, 2013. JCB and Living Paintings: Great British Inventions

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I heard yesterday that one of my picture books has just been published by Living Paintings in a format allowing it to be enjoyed by blind and visually impaired kids. Children love machines and I wrote “The Flying Diggers” for Hodder out of affection for that remarkably sturdy and instantly-recognisable British machine, the dazzling yellow JCB, whose initials stand for its inventor, Joseph Cyril Bamford. A visit to the factory at Rocester convinced me that the appeal of these powerful beasts lies in their magical ability to morph into all sorts of shapes. So why not have JCBs that besides digging trenches and earthworks, can fly to the rescue of creatures in distress and do the bidding of small children as well? When I discovered the chapel-like building where Joseph Bamford first experimented with hydraulic arms for a tractor, the idea of a kindly grandfather who might create something magical for his grandchildren was born. He has morphed into Granbam.
To have this book with David Melling’s delightful illustration adapted for blind children is a particular thrill for me. Who would have thought that the skills of the wood-carver could bring under the fingertips of the unsighted something of the magic of the workshop and the miraculous little work-horses that the rest of us take for granted? Living Paintings deserves, combining as it does engineering and imagination, to stand alongside JCB as one of the great British inventions and institutions of our time.
Fireworks, please.