Rants and stories

Sex without sex

The C of E has decided that bishops can have civil partnerships provided they do not actually have sex together.

I propose:

l) people can go to restaurants - but only if they do not eat

2) people can get in to swimming pools provided they don't get wet

3) people can go to church provided they don't listen to a wor4 they're told.

Photosensitive Epilepsy

Recently I counted 12 times in one evening when television channels warned ‘viewers with photosensitive epilepsy’ that the programme (or news item) they were about to watch 'may contain flashing images or flash photography' .

This does not happen in other countries such as the United States. It is a peculiarly British phenomenon.

As I understand it, only about 0.2 per cent of viewers are likely to suffer from photosensitive epilepsy (PSE) but we other 99.88 per cent have to put up with these endless warnings...they're endless because, when you think about it, hardly any programme does not have a flashing image of some sort.

Surely people with PSE should take for granted the programme they plan to watch has flashing images !

I have some suggestions for dealing with this absurdity:

(l) warn viewers that they are about to be assaulted with this warning, on the following lines:

'Viewers are warned that there is about to be a warning that the upcoming programme may contain flash photography.'

We can then avoid this warning by (a) turning the sound down, (2) running from the room screaming , or (3) throwing a hard object - such as a brick - at the screen.

(2) Have an all-purpose warning once a day - for instance at 1 a.m. every day:

'Viewers are warned that the next 24 hours programmes may contain flashing images. If you suffer from PSE you may wish to wear dark glasses - or sod off and listen to the radio.'

(3) create a special channel for those with PSE.

On the exclusive PSE Channel, warnings would be repeated non-stop, not just before programmes but with five, three and one minute warnings...i.e. 'flashing image coming up in 60 seconds'...that kind of thing.

Or there could be a flashing image just before the flashing image warning viewers that there is about to be a flashing image.

Or there could be warnings about the actual programmes: 'You are warned that this warning about flashing images will be followed by an actual programme.'

Programmes on this channel could be exclusively about PSE. thus positively discriminating in favour of its sufferers. For instance PSA News could contain only news items involving flash photography.’

The National Durge

We have to replace our National Anthem.

It is probably the worst in the world.

It is a tuneless, and, above all, characterless dirge.

While watching the rugby, one could be genuinely moved by the others.

There were Australia with the democratically-chosen 'Australia Fair,' New Zealand (with the first verse of 'God Defend New Zealand' in Maori), and South Africa ('South Africa, our land', using five languages), all of them with tuneful, proud and rousing national anthems that made you want to pack a suitcase and go there.

There were the French with their stirring La Marseillaise (whatever you think of the French, their national anthem is fantastic.)

There were the other three 'home nations' all with anthems that raise the roof and the temperature of anyone listening - the Welsh with 'Land of our Fathers', the Scots with 'Flower of Scotland' and Ireland's heart-stopping 'Ireland's Call'...songs full of fervour and revolutionary spirit.

Then come the English. And what does this proud, island race sing ?

God Save our gracious Queen
God Save Our Noble Queen
God Save the Queen
Send her Victorious
Happy and Glorious
Long to reign over us
God Save the Queen.

Think about those words.

Now, come on - is that really the best we can do ?

If we did not have a National Anthem and someone came forward with those words today they would be a national laughing stock.

Even the Queen herself would be embarrassed.

Is this what this country is all about ?

Do these words remind the world of the character and imagination that once conquered half the world, the genius that fired the Industrial Revolution, the courage that took on and beat Hitler (when countries with much braver songs cowed in defeat) , ?

They are the kind of enforced, slavish words you could imagine a Japanese company imposing on its work force to inspire it every day towards more hours of mindless, repetitive toil on factory floors.

According to my dictionary, a national anthem is supposed to 'evoke and eulogise the history, traditions and struggles of its people'.

Our National Anthem does not do that. It would better suit North Korea where the anthem and all other public activities exist to 'evoke and eulogise' the supreme leader.

Yet who dare say it ?

Is it not up to we Oldies to speak out ?

The young can't be bothered. They think the Queen is a band.

The ruling generation will be terrified it will backfire politically. (Can you imagine the Daily Telegraph editorials ?)

By all means, God, do save the Queen (especially considering her successor).

But let's replace the National Anthem.

Baldies and Maleria

‘I'm a fan of Bill Gates..

Not only has he helped revolutionise our world with his contribution to the world of computers, the miracle of our lifetime, but he has given away billions - that's right, billions - to helping tackle poverty and disease. And he has persuaded other billionaires to do the same.

Now he’s drawn attention to the lunatic priorities that cause the world to spend $2 billion on research into a 'cure' for men who become bald and only $1.8 billion on research into how to control malaria.

Now, admittedly I have a healthy head of hair - as does Bill Gates - but it would not worry me if I didn't.

Lots of people become bald.

Some even shave their heads and become bald deliberately.

Being bald does you no harm - but malaria does.

In particular, it does immense harm to millions and millions of children in the Third World, many of whom die from it.

This is all about is the mentality of the so-called 'people' in the pharmaceutical industry who invest in research not in terms of what is best for the human race but what is best for their balance sheet.

In fact, the entire world of science and technology, is hopelessly distorted.

If all the vast sums of money spent on weapons to kill and on products we don't need were invested instead in cures for arthritis, cancer, etc, we would have those cures by now.

It's so obvious that it’s completely and utterly insane that we don't insist on this.

I don't often wish upon myself control of the entire world, but give me just a day - just one day - with the power to order whatever I believe should be done, and a complete revolution in how we spend scientific and technical resources would follow.’

Desert Island Discs

Ed Milliband has appeared on Desert Island Discs.

This last item raises a question: have you heard of Roy Plomley ?

If you have, you're probably an Oldie... because 28 years have passed since he died at 71 in the mid-eighties.

Roy began Desert Island Discs in 1941, the year I was born, and presented 1,791 programmes over 43 years.

And, believe it or not, I was the subject of one of them, back in Shelter days, so I suppose I was about 26 or 27.

It was an eventful recording.

First, I had decided on part of a speech from my hero John F. Kennedy; this was unusual and was somewhat reluctantly approved.

When it came time to play it, Roy asked me why I had chosen it and I extolled Kennedy's virtues and went on to deplore the standards of politicians in the UK.

Whereupon the studio door crashed open and a wild-eyed producer came rushing in.

'You can't say that !'

'Why not ?'

'It's too political.'

There was a bit of a debate and then we continued.

Another one of my requests was for the music of a Highland Pipe Band. I explained that the 'pipes' were very popular where I had lived in New Zealand and I loved the sound.

Roy asked me to name a piece.

I replied 'Oh, no, I can't do that - I just like the sound, and they all sound the same to me.'

The door crashed open. Even more wild-eyed producer:

'You can't say that ?'

'Why not ?'

'It will upset our Scottish listeners.'

So they gave me the name of a Scottish march and the name of a band and I duly asked for them.

To this day, friends who heard the programme have assumed I am an authority on Highland pipe bands.

How else would I have heard of this obscure 'tune' and even more obscure band ?

Some time later we had a Christmas party and Roy came. As I welcomed him, I looked desperately round for someone to introduce him too and my eyes fell on my friend, the theatre critic Benedict Nightingale.

'I waved him over and said 'Roy, this is Benedict Nightingale, who I know wants to meet you.'

OK, it was a bit of poetic licence, but even so, I did not expect the chill that descended.

It almost appeared as if they were glaring at each other.

I hastily moved on.

A few minutes later Benedict came over and said 'Des, why in God's name did you introduce me to Roy Plomley like that ?'

'Well, I was just trying to keep the party ticking over,' I replied, 'why, is there a problem ?'

'Yes,' he said, 'in all my years I've been reviewing plays I have never written a totally vicious review...except once...it was a play by Roy Plomley !'

Which would explain both the icy atmosphere and the fact that Roy only stayed a few minutes.

At subsequent parties I left the guests to their own devices.

Dr Who?

They're celebrating 50 years of the television programme Dr Who.

I remember the first episode, in black and white

It introduced the Daleks and we all went around at work, pointing to anyone who crossed our path, and saying 'exterminate him.'

When Tom Baker was Dr Who I knew a member of the cast, Louise Jameson, who had been at the RSC when I was there.

For my then small son Tim's birthday, Susan fixed for me to take him to a day's filming and to see the set.

As you can imagine, it was for Tim and my daughter Jacqui a big day.

Louise was marvellously helpful and it all went well until we were just leaving and who should we bump into but Dr Who himself.

Louise introduced him to us and Tom was obligingly friendly.

'What's your name ?' he asked Tim.

Tim just stood and looked at him, so stunned by meeting Dr Who that he couldn't answer.

He admitted afterwards that the meeting was so momentous he actually could not remember his own name.

I was NOT a Russian spy

There are a number of 'cold war' programmes on television at the moment, and BBC Four are repeating the old Alec Guinness version of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.

It reminds me of the time I was pursued as a possible contact by the KGB.

Honestly, I am not making this up.

In the mid 80s I was running the Campaign for Freedom of Information. As this campaign opposed much of the secrecy that bedevilled Whitehall in those days, the Russians naturally assumed that whoever ran it was a possible enemy of the State.

I was phoned by a Russian' journalist' requesting an interview.

An affable young chap, he duly turned up at my little office at Kings Cross and we wandered down the street to a Greek restaurant where I often had lunch.

For some reason I was usually the only one there - perhaps because the main dining area was in a dark basement and only half-heartedly open at lunch-times; at that point no-one had ever bothered by lunch-time to clear up the dirty glasses and plates or the cigarette butts from the previous day.

But they did a tasty Spring Chicken and Chips and I was happy to sit in the corner alone and read a newspaper and escape for a few minutes from what was usually a busy day.

So this is where I took the Russian.

Now I didn't think of it the time - I really was an innocent abroad - but I suppose if someone was suspicious about either me or the Russian, those suspicions would be increased tenfold if they saw us huddled in the corner of a dark, dirty basement in Kings Cross where the chance of us being seen was virtually nil.

It was a scene straight out of a John Le Carre novel.

Anyway I liked the chap and accepted an offer of a return lunch. This took place in a more fashionable venue, Joe Allens in Covent Garden.

When I made a gesture towards paying, he brushed it aside and took from his pocket a thick wad of brand-new £5 notes and told me that he must pay because it showed his superiors that he was out and about, working, and making contacts.

For the first time I felt a brief flicker of misgiving.

He then went off to Moscow on his holidays and on his return he came to the office and handed me a huge box of the biggest Cuban cigars I had ever seen. It was, he said when I protested, a gift; he would be very upset if I declined to accept it.

Well, as I said, I liked the chap, and, anyway, I was partial to the occasional cigar, and these were the best, so I took them to my home in Brighton and, after dinner that Saturday night, settled in front of the fire, unwrapped one and lit up, and, placing the box on top of the television set, settled down to watch the nine o'clock news.

To my horror the first item was a sensational story about Russian spies being thrown out of the country.

Who did I see climbing the steps of the aeroplane with the other spies but my journalist friend.

Even more spine-chilling were the last words of the newscaster, to the effect that the British secret service were now looking into all the spies' contacts in the UK.

I froze, the cigar still in my hand.

Jane knew what to do.

She said 'Des, get rid of the cigars.'

Without another word I picked up the box, walked down to the breakwater, and tossed the box into the sea.

For a week or two I waited for the knock on the door in the dead of night,. but it never came.

Some years later I was on a tour bus in Moscow and they pointed out a massive concrete building that had been the headquarters of the KGB.

I wondered whether somewhere in its basement there were rows of files dating back to the Cold War...

...one of them with my name on it.

If so, would the folder contain a slip of paper....a receipt for a box of cigars ?

It matters not who won or lost...

I see they're making a film about Sebastian Coe and Steve Ovett.

I can't wait to see it.

We Oldies remember only too well the Moscow Olympics in 1980 when those two fantastic runners memorably clashed.

The country became completely divided...

...half supported the well-mannered, middle class gentleman, Sebastian Coe, always, at least superficially, a 'play up, and play the game' sportsman in the best British amateur tradition... someone, you felt, had many options in life...a chap every bank manager's wife would love her daughter to marry...

...the remainder backed the usually unshaven, rough diamond, working class Steve Ovett who made no attempt to conceal what he was out there for... no obvious options but to run and win...and in whose face every bank manager's wife would slam the door.

What I liked about Ovett was the lack of guile. The obvious need to be first to the tape. The 'take me or leave me' attitude to the media and public.

What I disliked about Coe was not Coe himself, but the emotions his appearance and well-bred manner aroused in the middle class and its media.

When Coe won in Moscow, one newspaper's headline crowed: 'Nice guys can win.'

We appeared to have no choice but to be a Coe or Ovett man and I was for Ovett.

For the same reason I supported John McEnroe as he faced down the puritanical, hypocritical 'it matters not who won or lost, but how you played the game' spectators who booed him at Wimbledon and even now slow-clap any player who dares to take up their absolute right to challenge a linesman's call.

For the same reason I supported the dedicated, self-obsessed, single-minded Geoffrey Boycott with his capacity to drive the members in the Lords pavilion to apoplexy.

Young sports fans of today would not believe how for decades British sport was dominated by the amateur.

I remember a former England captain Tony Lewis, who at the time was the amateur captain at Glamorgan, telling me how it was expected of him to have a separate dressing room and walk onto the playing surface from a separate entrance to that of his own professional team-mates. And while his team took lunch together, Tony was expected to lunch in the committee dining room.

On the scorecard he was called Mr A. Lewis, while his professional team-mates would be called Lewis A. It was Gentlemen and Players. (To some extent still is: that's why Wimbledon crowds really preferred the obviously middle class, impeccably behaved, stiff-upper-lipped Tim Henman, with his stony-faced father sitting in the players' box, to the working class, less polished, willing-to-cry-when-he-loses Andy Murray. They loved Henman when he lost; they half sort of half-adopted Murray only because he won.)

McEnroe was a player. Boycott was a player. Ovett was a player. And Murray is a player.

And I've always preferred the players.

Talking about Sebastian Coe and amateurs....

For a time I was a public affairs advisor to the MCC, bastion of the amateur tradition.

I was constantly asking them to persuade their stewards to be a bit more polite, because the sense of superiority of some of the members had spilled over to the staff.

I had in an earlier years been to Lords on a Sunday and hoped that, while I was not a member, I could just put my head round the pavilion door and see the famous Long Room.

As I tried to slip in I was accosted by a steward and asked if I was a member.

I said I was not but would love to have just fleeting glimpse of the Long Room.

I was told to leave immediately.

'We don't let people like you into the pavilion.'

Some years later, as an MCC advisor, I had a pass to the pavilion. There was the same man on the door, bowing and scraping.

Anyway, this is all but a prelude to a story that, while I cannot totally vouch for it, did the rounds at Lords:

Sebastian Coe arrived at the North Gate for a test match and was told that his ticket was for an entrance on the other side of the ground.

'Well, I see that now,' he said, 'but as I'm here and obviously have a ticket, would you mind if I just enter here.'

The steward refused. Coe must walk round to the other side.

Coe is then reputed to have said: 'Do you know who I am ?'

The steward said he did not.

'I am Sebastian Coe.'

'In that case,' said the steward, 'there's no problem. You can run round.'

Theatre of Blood

The National Theatre has just marked its 50th anniversary with a brilliant, televised evening featuring many of the star performers over that time.

This coincides with the publication of a new book I've been reading by Michael Blakemore, an Associate Director of the National Theatre from its beginnings under the leadership of Laurence Olivier and then for some time under that of Peter Hall.

Blakemore's ability to recall every detail of every dispute, no matter how minor, is amazing. This is the book of a man who never forgets or forgives a slight. In the closing chapters the gloves really come off and it becomes a naked attack on Peter Hall.

It could have been called Blakemore's Revenge. Instead he has appropriately named it 'Stage Blood.'

But it is also remarkably revealing about theatre politics.

I know a bit about this because I spent two years as Head of Public Affairs of the Royal Shakespeare Company in the early Seventies when Trevor Nunn was Artistic Director.

The internal jealousies, the betrayals, the manipulation were, I assumed then, a feature of that company at that time but Blakemore makes clear they were inherent within the professional theatre in those days...at least the subsidised theatre at national level. In fact, the happenings at the National put the RSC into the shade.

I have not been to the theatre often for many years now, but when I was younger it competed with cricket as my first love.

You will find a lot of Oldies who share a love for both.

In particular you will find a lot of actors who love cricket (I have often seen them at Lords whiling away a day before that evening's performance).

One similarity between cricket and the theatre is that both are always considered and discussed in the context of their pasts.

The latest Hamlet, for instance, is discussed by we Oldies in the context of Hamlets reaching back to Olivier's ...

...just as to Oldies the modern day batsmen's performances are assessed in the context of players reaching back to Jack Hobbs.

There is nothing a theatre-loving Oldie likes more than to become absorbed in a debate about who was the best Richard the Third or Lear, and nothing a cricket-loving Oldie loves more than picking World X1's from players going back to 'before the war'.

It is impossible to have a boring discussion about either cricket or theatre if you have any grasp of their respective histories.

It's from that perspective - a feeling for what has gone before, of how things have changed, of legacies left and myths created - that much wisdom comes.

But, back to the theatre. Three stories that sum up my RSC experience.

First, the manipulation. The company's centenary was coming up and two of the associate directors came to me and expressed concern that Trevor Nunn was taking a sabbatical year. Surely, they said, he should have a presence at such a crucial time. At their request, I raised the matter at the management board that week; to my horror everyone else attacked me, saying that Trevor had worked hard, deserved a break etc. Who were the two leading attackers ? The very same two who had raised it with me in the first place. For some reason best known to themselves they had led me into a trap. and smiled to each other as I walked into it.

Second, the betrayal. I was in New York for the opening of a major RSC production. The leading actor took me out to dinner and launched a ferocious attack on his leading lady. She could not act. She was ugly. She was a liability that was going to sink the play without trace. What was needed was to sack her on the spot and recall the actress who had played the part in London. (What had happened, of course, is that he was getting cold feet about the Broadway opening and was anxious to put back together all the pieces that made the London run a success.) Of course this was impossible at this point and I had to gently lead him away from the idea. Later that evening I told the company manager about the conversation. 'He hates her,' I said. The company manager laughed. 'Where do you think he is now ?' he asked. I confessed I did not know. 'He's in her bed,' he said, 'they've been having an affair on tour.' I could not believe it: one minute he was seeking to destroy her reputation and career; the next making love to her.

Third, ego. For every production the Stratford on Avon Herald would publish a supplement of pictures. On one occasion they left a picture of one actor in a minor role out of the paper. The following day the actor turned up in my office, screaming and shouting about the injustice of it. Finally he left slamming the door so hard that the window cracked. I sat back in my chair, stunned by the outburst, when slowly the door began to creak open. His head appeared. 'I don't want you to think I care personally,' he said, 'I'm just concerned for the integrity of the character I'm playing.' And he was gone.

I could tell many more such stories, yet, believe it or not, I liked most of them, especially the actors.

It is the vulnerability of the profession, the insecurity, that leads to much of their excesses of behaviour.

Tony Benn - an Oldie's Oldie

If we Oldies collected Oldies, surely we would have Tony Benn up-front in our collection.

Whatever you think of him - and opinions vary to extremes on either side - Tony is a phenomenon.

Now, at 88, he has published the last of his diaries. These I have read but in the meantime I've been reading the reviews. These are broadly affectionate. However the old soldier makes the mistake of confiding to the Guardian that he 'hates' the paper's columnist Simon Hoggart and the latter , just before he dies, strikes back by providing the reasons for his dislike of Tony Benn:

'Obviously his admiration for Chairman Mao, one of the greatest mass murderers in history. The slavish interview with Saddam Hussein. There is his blithe lack of loyalty to the governments he served in and failed to resign from...add the way that Benn helped tear apart the Labour Party and so made the national safe for Thatcherism. The way he used his position to make sure Concorde was built at a cost of billions so that a few rich people could save time, and why ? Because many of Benn's Bristol constituents built the plane; his political security trumped all reasonable spending calculations.'

Compare that with Dominic Lawson's comment that 'there is an almost child-like purity about the man' (Sunday Times) or Gaby Hinsliff writing that his 'joyful curiosity about the world remains undimmed; every conversation is still a chance to learn; all humanity grist to his insatiable mill.' (Observer)

The fact is that Tony Benn is a mass of contradictions who in the 46 years since I first met him changed dramatically from a kind of 'eager beaver' politician of the centre in Harold Wilson's early Prime Ministerial to someone who moved more and more to the left.

The question is: did he move opportunistically or did he move because he became convinced ?

Here I believe we have to look at what he did, rather than what he said.

And you have to read his diaries, especially the one's as he becomes an Oldie, because it is not the headlines he created that tell you about him but the little things...

...the thousands of journeys, often involving hours on cold railway station platforms, to take him to all sorts of tiny meetings just because he was asked; the readiness to meet anyone who wanted to talk to him about problems in this country or even in tiny places abroad; the sheer energy and enthusiasm. You can't manufacture or pretend these things.

I have two Benn stories to tell.

The first takes me back to 1971 after the fall of Wilson's first government. Richard Crossman, who had been Social Services Secretary and who had befriended me, asked me to join an editorial board of the New Statesman of which he had become editor. Others included former Cabinet ministers Barbara Castle, Howard Lever, and Tony Benn.

At one meeting I began to talk about the concept of 'participation' as a political idea. Tony listened attentively. After the meeting he came across and said 'Des, I think there could be a Fabian pamphlet in this.'

This was on a Thursday morning. On Sunday - three days later - I was lolling in bed ringing the Sunday papers when the front door bell rang. I found a taxi driver standing there with a big parcel. When I opened it; there, handwritten in big letters, scrawled across the pages, was Tony's pamphlet, already written. You could feel the energy coming off the pages. I could not help but be impressed by the way he had thrown himself into it and produced it so quickly. The man was driven.

Years later, I was at a conference of community organisers taking place in Manchester. Tony had been asked to be the after-dinner speaker on the Saturday night. He travelled all the way from London at his own expense and, arriving too late for dinner, made a slide presentation unfed and un-watered. Unfortunately some of those present had been at the bar for two or three hours and were well into their cups and began to jeer and generally mock the proceedings. It was unforgivable. But Tony totally ignored them and with the calm courtesy I always witnessed when I was in his presence went on speaking to those who did want to listen. Afterwards he came to the bar and sat with us, talking on with enthusiasm about the issues we had been debating. There was not a word of complaint about the appalling way he had been treated. In his courtesy and decency he shamed his tormenters. Tony was a gentleman.

Yes, he did get some things horribly wrong. And I do think he became a bit dotty by the end... he was so far out on a limb he had probably fallen off and broken his brain.

But he was a populist who became popular just because ordinary people sensed the underlying decency and the sincerity and that, whether he was making sense or not, he was genuinely on their side.

I suspect the fact that he packed halls and was voted the country's most popular politician was as much as a reflection on our low opinion of politicians generally as for his own qualities. But it also reflected our awareness that, even if his solutions were unworkable, he cared. He did care.

His diaries make clear that the last 20 or 30 years of his life were spent 'on the road' on picket lines and at demonstrations and marches and protest meetings, always hoping he was making a difference (though he confesses in his last diaries that he feels his life has been a failure.)

He's old now and has been ill, hence his decision these will be the last diaries.

Soon he'll never again be seen, alone, huddled in a heavy coat for warmth, on some northern railway station late at night, waiting to return from a meeting he would by the following morning have forgotten.

Soon he will be gone.

And how many politicians will be left who we all instinctively know really care ?

The All Blacks

New Zealand is in the news.

A New Zealander has won the Booker Prize.

Another New Zealander has topped the American pop music charts.

And the Autumn rugby internationals are taking place and the All Blacks have come to town.

Twickenham is packed to see the home team beaten by the best in the world. (The All Blacks were on their way to becoming the first team in the professional era to be unbeaten all year.)

It is difficult for any non-New Zealander to appreciate how much the All Blacks mean to that small country, the place of my birth.

New Zealand is made up of the two tiny islands clinging on to the under-side of the globe, the land closest to the Antarctic.

The country looks isolated and tiny. And it is. Yet, until Peter Jackson's Tolkien films and these latest cultural successes, it held its head high across the planet for one main reason:

The All Blacks.

It is the All Blacks we ...

...(note the word 'we'... I have just become a New Zealander; I always do when the All Blacks are mentioned)...

...it is the All Blacks we send out to say to the world:

'We are here ! And we demand your respect.'

When the All Blacks are playing the whole country comes to a halt.

Victory is taken for granted, so there is minimal celebration when they win. Just calm self-satisfaction.

But defeat - defeat - can crush the whole country.

Inquests take place in every club and pub., and for weeks in the newspapers and on television.

It is not just the All Blacks who have been beaten - the whole country has been vanquished.

And at stake is its very belief in itself, its confidence, even its tendency to swagger.

When New Zealanders travelling overseas say 'I am a New Zealander' they are at one and the same time saying 'I come from where the All Blacks come.'

One of my earliest memories is of a bedroom I shared with two brothers. On the wall there was a picture of the 1949 All Black team that went to South Africa. I knew every face and name on that chart almost before I knew my own name.

Then in 1950, nine years old, I first saw the All Blacks play, a test match with the British Lions in Dunedin.

Then in 1956, unbelievably, our school was chosen as their training ground before the first test match with South Africa (I was at that match too). Lessons were cancelled. Work in town ceased. Shops closed. Everyone came to the school to watch them practice. To be close to them. Even say hullo to one. This was a massive moment.

There is no more popular past-time in New Zealand than looking back over the years and trying to pick the best All Black team of all time. I still enjoy this conversation with fellow New Zealanders when I meet them. I am helped by the fact that I doubt there is one person in the UK other than me who was there in Dunedin in 1950 and saw the famous All Black fullback Bob Scott and the rest of the team draw with the Lions 9-9 before going on to win the series.

From the beginning of the year it is the determination of every New Zealander to do whatever is necessary to get tickets for the next test match.

Wherever you are people will ask: have you got your test tickets ?

Indeed there is a story about a New Zealander who came to London for a test match but landed at Heathrow in considerable pain.

He went to a doctor who examined him carefully and said 'I'm really sorry to break this to you, but I fear you will have to have your testicles removed.'

The Kiwi nearly fainted with shock.

'I demand a second opinion,' he said.

So he was sent to a second doctor who after another careful examination said 'I'm afraid there is no question about it - we're going to have to take your testicles away.'

And the Kiwi replied: 'Testicles ! Oh, thank God - I thought they were taking my test tickets !'

JFK - where were you when you heard?

We Oldies can all recall exactly where we were and what we were doing when we heard that JFK had been killed. (I was on the platform of Waterloo Station waiting to catch a train home from work when I heard someone say it.)

Well over 1000 books have been written about Kennedy, many seeking to explain the impact he made on the world, but many also written by conspiracy theorists convinced that Lee Harvey Oswald did not act alone.

To deal with the conspiracy books first, these vary from claims that the Mafia were behind it, the Cubans caused it, the CIA did it, the Texas Republicans wanted it (and hired a hit-man), and - according to the latest book - that it was a plot orchestrated by no other than the vice-president Lyndon B. Johnson who recruited the help of all of the above.

I have a theory of my own.

It is that Lee Harvey Oswald did it.


If after 50 years no-one can prove it was anyone else, or that anyone else is involved, and considering that the conspiracy theorists are at odds with one another, maybe it makes sense to follow Sherlock Holme's advice that 'when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.'

Since his death there have been attempts, if not to discredit Kennedy, to tarnish the image. Undoubtedly it's the case that we admirers were not aware of the playboy side to his character, the womanising and so forth.

But none of this begins to alter my view that he was head and shoulders above those who have followed him to the White House.

His handling of the Cuban crisis alone makes him a historic personality. The more that is revealed about that event, the more terrifying it becomes. The world really was on the brink of self-destruction. Kennedy was under enormous pressure, not only from the activities of the Russians and Cubans but even more from his own military. And while he was trying to handle it at top level, all sorts of near fatal errors and misunderstandings were happening down the ranks that themselves could have decided the issue. Yet from start to finish over 13 of the most frightening days in world history he kept his nerve and made the right judgements and he and peace prevailed together.

But for me Kennedy's importance was that he altered the image of public service. He made politics exciting and with his message 'not ask what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country' he inspired a generation.

He made it respectable to care.

I watched it in a basement beds-sitter in Earls Court and from that day my life was changed. I started to read newspapers I had not read before, to follow political events, and finally became involved myself.

And I suspect I am one of millions all over the world who also responded to that call.

Maybe it was because he was the first charismatic political leader of the television era.

Maybe it was his looks and style and the fact that he wasn't Richard Nixon that did it.

It's fashionable now for many to play him down...to ask questions about what he really would have done about civil rights, or about Vietnam.

We will never know.

I only know that for a brief period of time the world had a leader who was bringing out the best in the rest of us.

Not until Nelson Mandela did anyone come on the scene to equal him.

The hip operation

The hip operation

These days well over 100,000 people a year are having hip replacements .

Recently I was one of them and I was as apprehensive as hell.

I was not afraid of the operation itself: I would be unconscious, and I was in the hands of one of the best hip replacement surgeons in the country, one of the amous 'Exeter hip' team.

What I was afraid of was:

• post-operative pain (I have a fairly low pain threshold; ok, if you want it stated more plainly, I'm a coward !)

• having - I was told - to spend six weeks sleeping on my back (I am an insomniac at the best of times, and this would not be the best of times) ...I could not see how I could do this.

• Weeks of immobility and inconvenience, hobbling about on crutches.

• In fact, the whole fxxking thing....

Anxious for advice and reassurance, I formed an on-line 'committee' of advisors, family and friends in three countries, including a brother in New Zealand who has replaced both hips and both knees, and a sister who had both hips replaced at the same time.

They all survived it and were better for it.

Still I had my concerns.

Some years back Jane and I decided that, while politically we didn't entirely approve, we would overcome our qualms of principle and pay for health insurance. Now it paid off.

First, I could dictate the time of the operation

Second, I could afford the best surgeon.

Third, I could have it done in a top-class private hospital.

Jane and I drove to Exeter the evening before and on the principle that a condemned man always has a last meal of his choice, we went to a gourmet pub for dinner and I had two glasses of champagne. We then booked into a hotel down the road from the hospital where, in the circumstances, I slept remarkably well.

By 7.15 I was booking into the hospital and discovered I was the first on the operating table. I was taken to my room and asked to change into my hospital gown. While I waited, the surgeon came in looking encouragingly cheerful, and I signed a piece of paper saying it was not his fault if I died in his hands.

Shortly after I was walked to the anaesthetic room where he explained to me that I would be given a small injection in the hand to relax me, then a major injection in the lower back, and finally be 'knocked out' with a general anaesthetic.

I remember him saying all that.

Then I woke up.

In the recovery room.

An hour and a half later.

The first words I heard were 'Mr Wilson, you have a really good new hip.'

Then I went back to sleep.

A couple of hours later I was sitting up in bed in my room devouring a prawn and avocado sandwich.

All afternoon and evening there were constant knocks on the door - people came to take blood and test blood, to take my temperature, to check my blood pressure, to give me my various medicines including painkillers; they were all cheerful, friendly and professional.

I was entirely comfortably, still under the influence of the anesthetic.

Then came the really good news: I could sleep on my side.

Either side.

All I had to do was keep a pillow between my legs.

I didn't sleep much but I was completely comfortable.

The following day the physio. came and showed me how to get out of bed and how to use crutches and we went for a short walk.

This was repeated in the afternoon by which time I was wandering about the place and even climbed stairs.

Otherwise the activities of the previous day were repeated...constant tests etc. And I was washed.

Not such a good night...only because of insomnia, not pain...there had still been no pain.

Day Three and I was told I could go home.

What ??? !!!

I had only been there two days after the operation.

'You are clear...' they said: 'you've passed all the tests, your X-ray is good, you're walking ok, you've climbed stairs...no need for you to stay.'

Well, I said, I was staying anyway. It was paid for. Another day's rest and a bit more physio could only help.

Still no pain.

So after another comfortable day the next day I was carefully helped into the car and two hours later (having slept one of the two hours in the car) I was home.

A day later I was walking about the house without crutches or a stick.

The pain and discomfort that had led to the operation had completely gone.

I suffered the odd spasm of pain when I sat down, obviously because the tissues around the wound were being affected by that movement, but otherwise I had no problem at all.

I was sleeping surprisingly well - on my side.

Within a week I was fully mobile round the house, walking down the lane, behaving almost completely normally. After 10 days the district nurse came, took out the stitches, and said it had healed well.

In other words: a total success.

All fears unjustified.

Almost an enjoyable experience.

So there it is: just go for the best surgeon you can get....work at exercising afterwards...and you will have to be really unlucky not to be as good as gold.

One final things: for over 12 weeks before-hand I went to the gym every second day and swam and lost over a stone. I think that really helped.