Friday, 8 January 2010


Looking back over a lifetime which has sparkled with unlikely friendships, the most gleeful was the one my wife and I enjoyed with two other writers, a retired judge called Ronnie Knox Mawer and his wife June, the most talented broadcaster I have ever met who in retirement turned out best sellers with provoking ease.

The apogee of Ronnie's career - and the subject of his hilarious books - was his appointment as Chief Justice of the South Seas in a bizarre career as a Colonial Judge in the days of Empire. He had been many things. An author, broadcaster, lorry-driving soldier, barrister, circuit judge and stipendiary magistrate. In retirement he toured the grand hotels scrounging unguents and blankets for the needy who crowded the St Vincent de Paul Society hostel near Victoria. He explained he was the Archbishop of Westminster's Arthur Daley.

Ronnie's guardian angel was an impish creature constantly devising comic situations which Ronnie relished. Going to war must have been light relief. Sent up a windmill in Holland to watch for V2s, he slipped gently out of his unit’s collective memory. So completely they forgot to tell him when the war ended and he was only recalled when his name was missed on the demobilisation list.

His time as a colonial judge in the South Seas ought to have been the subject of an Ealing Comedy. Ronnie, who would have had to put on weight to be spectral, spent his 35th birthday in full judicial robes partnering a 20-stone King of the Savage Islands in a dance of welcome. On circuit, his judge’s lodgings were a tree house which he shared with a colony of flying foxes. His predecessor had made history by adjourning a murder trial when the defendant's family ate the jury.

Back in this country and appointed a London stipendiary magistrate, his spectral appearance caused chaos in his court at Bow Street when a cleaner mistook him for the Ghost of the Clerkenwell strangler.

Back home he wore two overcoats. Not so much for warmth as to become visible to the naked eye.
Ronnie was 26 when he first put on the black cap and sentenced a man to death. He subsequently handed down more death sentences than most people have had last breakfasts.

The Knox Mawers spent their winters in a smart flat in Park Lane, Mayfair, and the summer in a row of cottages they had converted at the end of a vertiginous lane in the Eliseg Crags above Llangollen. The last time we dined together we had been bidden to celebrate the massacre of a colony of wasps who had turned a corner of his garden into Helmand Province.

I am standing over the nest with the insecticide and my friend is saying to the wasps within, “Prisoners at the bar, have you anything to say.....”

I was puzzled to know why I had been lured seventy miles by the prospect of a hearty dinner to kill wasps. Then I recall my friend has a fine legal sense of precedent and my family has had a long connection with executioners. A gentle man, inevitably he went to grant the wasps a pardon, abandoning that section of his garden.

His father was a well known Wrexham chemist. A terrifying tyrant, he ruled his family in a gaunt, Victorian villa from which evacuees fled. In his book ”Are You Coming or Going?”, Ronnie turned him into a clown. As a precaution against gas attacks in 1939 Ronnie and his three sisters were all ordered to wear their masks wherever possible. Father set an example by wearing not only his gas mask to prune his cherished damson tree: he also wore a black steel helmet captured by an uncle from the Austrian army in 1914.

Ronnie wrote:“Father looked startlingly like the scientist in the horror movie ‘The Fly'........
.......our neighbour Mrs Hurford Jenkins was peacefully weeding her bed of African marigolds. Her shriek of terror rang down the entire road as she was helped into the house. Inevitably her husband hurried round to complain. ‘Are you trying to win your own war of Nerves, Knox Mawer?’ he demanded. Since father’s voice was muffled behind his mask, the major received no satisfactory reply............”

My father was the official driver to Albert Pierrepoint, the most famous public hangman. He did not mind his macabre role. It was a rest from his other job in the wartime police which was running a black market cartel. Though he did find it a touch strange the way Albert, who had a fine baritone voice, liked to lead a singsong in pubs on the way home from work.

Albert had a pub himself near Blackpool called “Help the Poor Struggler”, which even my old man thought was not in the best of taste. Though the coachloads of trippers who called there every day thought it a great joke and all wanted their photographs taken standing under the sign with Albert.

Another hangman I knew called Wade had a cafe in Yorkshire called “Rest Weary Pilgrim” so maybe a macabre sense of humour went with the job. Though a third chum, hangman Harry Allen, kept a pub called The Junction so it wasn't universal.

In the days of which I speak even bars on the road to Blackpool not run by hangmen did a roaring trade .Gin and orange was the staple drink and stood ready poured in rows on the bar top waiting for a charabanc to arrive. Unscrupulous landlords filled the glasses with orange juice and wiped a gin stained finger round the rim. No one ever noticed. Another scam after a punter had drunk three genuine gin and tonics was to serve him plain tonic for subsequent orders. The punter would still taste gin. It works. Try it.

My father was a wit, a bon viveur, the jovial heart of every merry company. A street fighter, a womaniser. And from the age of eleven I hated him. I had plenty of reason. He beat my grannie, my mother and he beat me.

When I was younger we were inseparable. When he wasn't drinking he would spend hours teaching me to draw or reading me Westerns or adventure stories about an improbable man called McClusky. He also read Dickens and Thorne Smith, a now forgotten humorous writer. He risked lung cancer to get a collection of English classic novels by smoking enough Kensitas Black Cat cigarettes to qualify for the gift.

My father was a thwarted student. At 15 he was fighting in the front line in World War One with the 1st Royal Scots. His war medals chronicled his dizzy climb to lance corporal and rapid return to private soldier. He claimed to be one of the last men to be given Field Punishment Number One, which was being lashed to the wheel of a field gun and birched. It was the only part of his service he talked about. War stories were verboten. Too painful to be recalled. Gassed and given up for dead, he recovered working on a fruit farm and became fit enough to join the police force in Manchester where he was shot in the head by the IRA, although he claimed the shot was fired by his inspector who disliked him.

Long after they were both dead, I realised that, unintentionally I was the cause of their misery. I learned my mother had declined conjugal relations since 1928 when I was conceived. She became pregnant before they were married. He had done what used to be called “the honourable thing” but they lived the rest of their lives in a bitterly unhappy marriage. Under the circumstances, his adulteries and his furies were surely understandable.

What I have since come to realise was that, had we not been father and son, we would have got on like a house on fire. He was born for trouble. On his first night as a policeman, a dentist had asked him, if he came across a stray cat, to put it in the dentist's cellar to clear an infestation of mice. Unfortunately, my father told the other policemen what he had done. All but one of them put a cat in the cellar. It was the one who put the dog in that got my father on a disciplinary charge.

His weakness was his willingness to accept gratuities. You could have given my father leprosy as long as it was free. In the early thirties there was an outbreak of psittacosis, a deadly disease transmitted by parrots. As a result, parrots were given away on every street corner. My father was the only person I heard of who accepted one. He was on duty at the time, but he brought the parrot home, then went back on his beat. Within minutes, the parrot had been killed by the cat.

We were living with my granny at the time, a lady who could have given Machiavelli three blacks and beaten him. When my father came home and demanded to know what had happened to his parrot, she told him it had just dropped dead. “Good God,” he said,”psittacosis!”

Before he could be stopped, he piled all our furniture into a heap in the backyard and burned it.
According to my mother, I had watched the incident intently. I did not speak until the fire burned down, when I said, “Naughty pussy ate the parrot”. It began a lifelong enmity between my father and his mother-in-law.

If the Bible has got it right,which I doubt, I should be meeting him soon. I hope so. As I say, I will be glad of the chance to apologise.

THE WORLD SPINS ROUND AND ROUND...........................

John Major and Lady Williams are two politicians of principle I have always found it possible to admire. On Radio this week they agreed that the worst thing that had entered politics in their lifetime was Spin and that the surest way to regain public respect for parliament was to sack all the spin doctors.

I am surprised they thought it a recent phenomenon. Spin is as old as humanity. It was evident in the cave paintings of animals and hunters which persuaded our ancestors that by making them they would achieve success in the field.

When I was a reporter so many people told me things about themselves I would have hesitated to tell my best friend that I decided the driving force of our sorry species was a desire to escape from anonymity. It isn't. What drives us is spin.

One of the great speeches in the Classical world was Pericles's funeral oration to the Athenians. Ostensibly, it celebrated the glorious dead in the first Peloponesian War. In fact it was an eulogy of the way of life to which he aspired for the Athenians. An appeal, like the later speeches of Churchill, another fine war leader and a master of spin, to sentimental patriotism. Cicero swayed the Senate with his oratory to achieve his ends.

I have only made two minor discoveries about Shakespeare. The first was that his play “The Tempest” contains echoes of most of the plays which preceded it, reminding those playgoers who saw it of the smash hits he had written in the past. The other is that the great battle speeches were not entirely the products of his soaring imagination. A source book he used was “Halle's Chronicles” which can now be read free on Gutenberg and Google. In them you will read the speeches of Henry V before Shrewsbury and Agincourt, which were the skeletons on which Shakespeare put flesh and were designed to put heart into the worn out soaking soldiers .

Today the ultimate spin is Warmgate.The principal spinners and doom sayers are the Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia, now derided, and the Met Office who cannot even get the weather right for the weekend but nevertheless presume to give forecasts for the next century. You remember Mr Fish's Tornado blip and the barbecue summer? In September they forecast that this was going to be the warmest winter for years. I read that in fact it has never been as cold for a quarter of a century. Now they excuse themselves by saying that climate (which affects global warming) is different from weather which doesn't. So we are committed to 6,000 wind farms in the sea round our septic isle.

Poor President Obama is a highly intelligent lawyer, clearly a man of principle untainted by the corrupt backcloth which has overshadowed his office for so many years. He wants to bring peace; he tried to provide every American with health care. Taken all in all, he was a man. But he has been spinned as a godlike figure who would solve all mankind's problems. He hasn't, and is being pillories because he has feet of flesh and blood.

The Obama administration’s $75 billion program to protect home owners from foreclosure was hailed as a Good Thing. A year later it has been widely pronounced a disappointment, and some economists and real estate experts now contend it has done more harm than good.. The program has lowered mortgage payments on a trial basis for hundreds of thousands of people but has largely failed to provide permanent relief. Critics increasingly argue that the program, Making Homes Affordable, has raised false hopes among people who simply cannot afford their homes.