Ian Whybrow

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November 10th, 2013. Daylight Robbery

November 10, 2013 - Filed under: Blog - Leave a comment

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

November 8, 2013 - Filed under: Blog - Leave a comment

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.

October 31st, 2013. La Vie est Douce

October 31, 2013 - Filed under: Blog - Leave a comment

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

October 25, 2013 - Filed under: Blog - Leave a comment

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

October 24, 2013 - Filed under: Blog - Leave a comment

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.