BBC: John Gwilliam: Wales Grand Slam-winning captain dies at 93
Former Wales Grand Slam-winning captain John Gwilliam - who was part of the last Welsh team to beat New Zealand - has died at the age of 93…
Away from rugby, he served as a tank commander during the Second World War and was headmaster of the independent Birkenhead School from 1963 to 1988…
Gwilliam was described as a physically imposing, religious and austere, and he is remembered at Birkenhead School as a strict disciplinarian.

My old headmaster. Physically imposing, religious, austere, and a strict disciplinarian pretty much nails it.

As a young atheist, I used to disagree with him in Divinity (RE) lessons. He got his own back by making me into a 'monitor'. The difference between a monitor and a prefect was that monitors weren't required to read the lesson in school chapel. In my case, I'm pretty sure he didn't want to take the risk.


Jen and I are just back from a fabulous week's holiday in Anglesey, during which, I was extremely daring, bordering on reckless:


OK, so maybe going for a paddle isn't all that daring. But, let's face it: I'm 49 years old; I have a bit of gyp from my left leg after adventurously trying to jump over an extremely narrow stream a few weeks back; my beard is more salt than pepper these days; and I've finally had to concede that my hair might indeed be thinning ever so slightly on top. So just how daring and adventurous can one expect to be at this stage in one's life?

39 years ago, I made friends with a boy named Paul who lived at the other end of our road. We were at different primary schools at the time, but were about to start at the same secondary school. We became very good mates, but ended up going to different universities and pretty much lost touch until we recently re-established contact via Facebook (yes, I am, somewhat reluctantly, on Facebook).

Last week, at around the time I was paddling on a beach in Anglesey, Paul, who was always a tad more athletic than me, set off on a jog from Marble Arch in London. He jogged down to Dover, then swam across the English Channel, then biked it to l'Arc de Triomphe in Paris. In so doing, Paul became the 20th, sixth-fastest, and oldest person to complete the frankly ridiculous Arch to Arc Challenge. In all, it took him 84 hours and 44 minutes.

Paul's Arch to Arc

Paul completing his Arch to Arc challenge.

Paul carried out all this nonsense in aid of the spinal cord injury charity for which he works. He's still accepting donations, if you're interested in sponsoring him retrospectively.

Before you get too impressed, however, I feel it my duty to point out that Paul is 26 days younger than me.

Postscript (03-Oct-2014):
Paul's account of his successful Arch to Arc Challenge

Evacuee kids

From p.171 of Off the Record, the wartime diary of the author and journalist Charles Graves:

May 30th. [1941]

Took Peggy to H- on the 1.15 a.m. from Paddington. […]

H- has the best beach for about 100 miles in any direction, and is directly opposite Ireland. H-is full of evacuated children from Merseyside, Liverpool University students doing theses, various foreign refugees, and others who have skipped from danger areas, like London. The greens on the [golf] course were in good condition. Local regulations about showing lights are not very strict. This despite the fact that the German Bomber Command aircraft always go up Cardigan Bay to attack Liverpool, and thus get a “fix” on the naked lights visible in various parts of Merioneth, including H-. H- has had no bombs nor sirens. Found four evacuee kids at Erinfa—Leslie the blonde, Norman the brunette, David the red-head, and Edwin just mouse colour. As a test of observation for them I hid eight pennies, three sixpences and a shilling round the terrace of the house. Leslie the blonde found practically all of them. Played penny bridge, and went to bed to the hoot of the owls. Thank goodness there are none of that much over-praised bird the nightingale round here.

To explain:

  • Charles Graves was the younger brother of the poet and novelist Robert ‘I, Claudius’ Graves;
  • ‘H-’ stands for Harlech in North Wales;
  • Erinfa was the Graves' family home, where Charles's mother—a German—Amalie Elizabeth Sophie von Ranke, was doing her bit for the British war effort by taking on the four ‘evacuee kids’;
  • the blond evacuee, Leslie, is my Uncle Les (then aged 7);
  • the brunette evacuee, Norman, is my dad (then aged 6).

I managed to track down a second-hand copy of Off the Record a few months back, and, yesterday, left it as a surprise Christmas present at my dad's. By a strange coincidence, unaware of the present, Dad was reminiscing about his days as an evacuee over whisky on Sunday evening. He is planning to pump his older brother for more reminiscences over Christmas lunch at my sister's place this afternoon.

Norman and Leslie

Norman (L) and Les (R), inspecting the Open Golf Championship claret jug in 2006.


Me Talk Pretty One DayI've just finished reading Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris. Stense bought it for me the other week. Thanks, mate, you were right: it is very funny.

The title of the book is taken from Sedaris's early attempts to learn French. There is an amusing passage in which Sedaris and his fellow students try to explain the concept of Easter to a Moslem in French. It reminded me of Irish Mick's fifteenth (I think) birthday party in (if memory serves) 1980. Carolyn and I were invited, as was Carolyn's friend, Sandra, who brought along her very attractive, French penfriend, Emmelle.

Irish Mick and Carolyn and I were all studying for our French 'O' levels at the time, but this was the first time we had met a real-live French person. It was pretty embarrassing. Mind you, Emmelle was pretty embarrassed too: "Would you like a drink, Emmelle?" we would ask (en Anglais). "Ah don't maand," replied Emmelle, shyly. "How about some food?" "Ah don't maand." "Would you like to sit outside?" "Ah don't maand." Ah don't maand seemed to be Emmelle's stock response to everything we asked, which opened up tantalising possibilities to the hormone-drenched lads present.

After a while, I decided that the embarrassed silence was getting ridiculous, so I decided to try to engage Emmelle in a conversation:

"So, then, Emmelle, I've not heard that name before. Is it the French equivalent of Emily?"
"Is Emmelle the French for Emily?"
"No, no! My name it is Marie-Louise!"
"Sandra said is was Emmelle!
"Sandra, she calls me M-L. It is short for Marie-Louise!"
"Oh, right…"
[More embarrassed silence. Come on, Richard, you idiot, try to think of something intelligent to say:]
"…So do you French really eat snails, then?"
"Snails… Erm… Escargots!"
"Ah, oui! We do eat the snails sometimes!"
"How about slugs?"
"Slergs? What is slergs?"
"Erm… Molluscs… Erm… Escargots sans maisons!"
"[Laughs] Non, we do not eat ze slergs."

It could have been the start of a beautiful relationship.

Uncle Fred

Uncle Fred

Uncle Fred. 100 today.

Meet my (Great) Uncle Fred.

Uncle Fred was born 100 years ago today. He had a birthday card from my mate the Queen to prove it. He's an amazing old man.

Fred has lived his entire life in the town I grew up in: Bromborough on the Wirral. Only it wasn't really that much of a town when Fred was born: he was brought up in a house with a mud floor, which apparently wasn't all that unusual.

Fred once told me about a young lad who went to the local grammar school many years ago. He was a bit of a trouble-maker, having a reputation for making people fall off their bicycles by shoving sticks through their spokes. The young lad's name was Harold Wilson. They always knew he'd turn into a bad 'un.

Fred also told me how he and a friend used to go fishing by placing calcium carbide from their carbide bicycle lamps into pop bottles. They would weigh the bottles down then throw them (uncorked) into local ponds. This would cause a small explosion which would stun the fish, which would then float to the surface.

During the Second World War, Fred was in the Home Guard. He spent many a night on guard duty in a bunker next to the first green at Bromborough Golf Course. It was from here that, one night, he saw German bombers flying over to bomb Liverpool.

Throughout his working life, Fred was a plumber. This gave him incredibly strong hands. When I was a kid, he would offer me his hand and let me try to crush it—which I never could, of course—then he would give me a gentle squeeze back, and I would recoil in agony.

We shook hands again today, and Fred gave my hand another gentle squeeze. It still hurt. I told him that I hoped I would make it to 100 one day. "It's not the years that are important; it's what you do with them," replied Fred.

Wise man.

It was twenty years ago today…

Durham University, Tuesday, 19th March, 1985, evening:

Hitchin has somehow convinced me, a northern, beer-swilling science undergraduate, to come along to the Law Department disco. I have no idea how he managed to do this. The event is held at the Q-Ball Club, a pool- and snooker-themed discothèque near the centre of town. (Don't look for it, it's not there any more.) I have been warned to be on my best behaviour.

So Hitchin and I and a few lawyer types are sitting drinking beer, and talking, as one does in such company, without prejudice, about Carlill v The Carbolic Smokeball Company and torts and lawyerly stuff like that, when this TOTAL BABE walks up to our table, and starts talking to the lawyers.

I immediately realise that this must be her, the heart-throb of the Law Department—the young lady I have heard so much about from another lawyer acquaintance of mine, Keith (but definitely not—for the record, Soo, if you're reading this—from Hitchin, oh Good Lord no!). At the risk of repeating myself, this young lady is a TOTAL BABE.

At this point, I should probably try to describe the vision of loveliness before me. But I'm not going to for a very good reason: I have no recollection whatsoever of what she looked like (other than her being a TOTAL BABE, that is—did I mention that?). We're talking twenty years ago, for Pete's sake! My memory is one big blur.


I was just starting my seventh pint, you see.

So, anyway, I'm averting my eyes, trying not to draw attention to myself by saying anything (a fundamental flaw in my chat-up technique), when I suddenly realise that the TOTAL BABE is addressing me! I remember her words exactly:

"Come on, let's dance!"

I look behind me to see who she's really talking to, but there's nobody there. She's asking me for a dance! Yeah, right. Hitchin has put her up to this, the bastard.

I explain to the TOTAL BABE that I don't do dancing. She repeats that she'd very much like to dance with me. I say that I'm really not into dancing. She says please. I say that, in fact, I'm totally crap at dancing. She is insistent, saying that it doesn't matter that I can't dance. I explain that I've just got myself a pint. She (I'm not making this up) picks up my pint and downs it in one!


The next thing I know, I'm surrounded by four hefty lawyers. They grab my arms and legs, carry me over to the dance floor, and dump me on my back on the flashing perspex.

I'm not going to be pushed around by a bunch of lawyers. So I stay there, lying flat on my back in the middle of the dance floor, while the TOTAL BABE and assorted lawyers dance round me.

Later, after he has given me a well-deserved slapping, Hitchin swears blind he didn't put her up to it.

I never saw her again.